John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a
beautiful heartwarming incredibly popular young adult novel about the relationship between two teenage cancer survivors. It has a 4.4 rating on Goodreads, a 4.7 on Amazon, and the movie has an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — an impressive score on a site famous for hating everything.
So . . . this is a big deal. In its subject matter, in its incredible popularity, and especially in the fact that many of its fans are crazy.
To review this book requires a lot of thoughtfulness, delicacy, and tact. Clearly I’m not the right person for the job, but here we are: cover to cover, we’re reading The Fault in Our Stars, an internet sensation written by an internet sensation.
If you’d like to read along but don’t feel like hobbling over to your library, the book can be found here.
We begin with our intrepid heroine, Does Not Yet Have a Name. I’m going to call her Sunshine. Her mom’s sending her to a cancer support group:
Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.
Wow. That’s . . . uh, pretty dark.
Seriously, though, this is actually a solid description of someone suffering from depression but being in denial about it. I was ready to come into this book with claws out and guns blazing because I have yet to read a book by Green that didn’t make me want to tear my eyes out with rusty spatulas, but I’ve sworn to be honest in these reviews, and so far I can’t find anything to hate. It’s surprisingly well-written, and while I’m not exactly engaged, I’m not revolted.
So Sunshine goes to the cancer support group. She’s bad-tempered and complains about everyone around her, but I can’t get mad about it (yet) because . . . well, depression sucks and cancer sucks and being a teenager sucks.
She flashes back to an argument with her mom, and it inexplicably switches to script, which is as annoying as it sounds. This argument illustrates one of the most irritating things about the book so far, though: Sunshine doesn’t talk like any normal teenager, instead mixing quirky one-liners and 9-year-old whining in a bizarre stew that makes me wonder if Green has had any interaction with teenage girls:
Despite these problems, I’m starting to worry that I won’t have much to talk about; none of it’s bad, but isn’t good, either. It’s mostly a strange combination of bland and depressing.
I went to Support Group for the same reason that I’d once allowed nurses with a mere eighteen months of graduate education to poison me with exotically named chemicals: I wanted to make my parents happy. There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer. . . .
The cylindrical green tank only weighed a few pounds, and I had this little steel cart to wheel it around behind me. It delivered two liters of oxygen to me each minute through a cannula, a transparent tube that split just beneath my neck, wrapped behind my ears, and then reunited in my nostrils. The contraption was necessary because my lungs sucked at being lungs.
And then . . . my savior appears. Behold:
Long and leanly muscular, he dwarfed the molded plastic elementary school chair he was sitting in. Mahogany hair, straight and short. He looked my age, maybe a year older, and he sat with his tailbone against the edge of the chair, his posture aggressively poor, one hand half in a pocket of dark jeans.
I looked away, suddenly conscious of my myriad insufficiencies. I was wearing old jeans, which had once been tight but now sagged in weird places, and a yellow T-shirt advertising a band I didn’t even like anymore. Also my hair: I had this pageboy haircut, and I hadn’t even bothered to, like, brush it. Furthermore, I had ridiculously fat chipmunked cheeks, a side effect of treatment. I looked like a normally proportioned person with a balloon for a head. This was not even to mention the cankle situation.
After an indefinite-but-apparently-long monologue, Sunshine notices Cute Boy is still staring at here.
It occurred to me why they call it eye contact.
What? Why do they call it eye contact? Did . . . did your eyes touch or something?
I have to admit, it’s almost charming how juvenile this is. I mean, this could be a scene out of Twilight, or literally any YA book from the last decade. Teenage girls can’t get enough of a brooding bad boy who won’t stop staring at a totally-not-special girl, only to teach her that she is special after all. Special because . . . he notices her, I guess.
But you know, this would be creepy in real life. Like, really creepy.
But don’t think that Mr. Green is promoting outdated and Edward-Cullen-y ideals of romance! On the contrary:
He was hot. A nonhot boy stares at you relentlessly and it is, at best, awkward and, at worst, a form of assault. But a hot boy . . . well.
Well. At least she has . . . standards? (Double standards are still standards, right?) And, you know, she’s just a teenage girl, so it’s . . . okay for her to be stupid?
No, I can’t defend this. The book is flat-out saying that it’s okay for someone to leer at you like you’re a piece of meat, as long as he’s hot. And you know why it isn’t just Sunshine being a dumb kid, something you’re not actually supposed to agree with? Because it works.
They fall in love. They do the Romeo-and-Juliet doomed-romance thing and it’s supposed to be soooo romantic, guys, he loves her sooooo much. But to me this relationship is forever blighted by the fact that Mr. Psycho ogled her in a distressingly possessive and disrespectful way, and was rewarded for it. Maybe she yells at him, and he realizes how uncalled for it was to stare at her like that, and if that happens I’ll deliver a heartfelt apology.
And it’s still going on!
The guy was still staring at me. I felt rather blushy.
It’s okay, though: Sunshine strikes a blow for feminism . . . by staring at him, too!
Finally, I decided that the proper strategy was to stare back. Boys do not have a monopoly on the Staring Business, after all. So I looked him over . . . and soon it was a staring contest. After a while the boy smiled, and then finally his blue eyes glanced away. When he looked back at me, I flicked my eyebrows up to say, I win.
Betty Friedan would be so proud.
You know, I’m starting to wonder if I’m not actually reading The Fault in Our Stars. Because outside of the worst YA fiction, I don’t think I’ve ever seen characters so intensely self-absorbed and awful in the first chapter. Listen to one of her sort-of friends describe his inevitable, horrifying blindness:
“I’m Isaac. I’m seventeen. And it’s looking like I have to get surgery in a couple weeks, after which I’ll be blind. Not to complain or anything because I know a lot of us have it worse, but yeah, I mean, being blind does sort of suck. My girlfriend helps, though. And friends like Augustus.” He nodded toward the boy, who now had a name. “So, yeah,” Isaac continued. He was looking at his hands, which he’d folded into each other like the top of a tepee. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“We’re here for you, Isaac,” Patrick said. “Let Isaac hear it, guys.”
And then we all, in a monotone, said, “We’re here for you, Isaac.”
We’ve listened to Sunshine complain about her cancer. We’ve listened to her complain about her parents. Her group. Her group leader. Cute boy. Paragraphs upon paragraphs of intense eye contact, for Pete’s sake! But when the only person she’s had any sort of connection with describes one of the most awful things that can happen to someone, what is her reaction? Monotone. No internal monologue. Nothing except that — praise the Lord — she now knows Mr. Psycho’s name. Thank goodness, the book cares about what’s truly important. Sunshine then listens emotionlessly as a 12- and 16-year-old describe their experiences. Oh, wait . . . that’s not entirely true. Look:
Lida was sixteen, and pretty enough to be the object of the hot boy’s eye.
See, she does care . . . enough to be a jealous monster. I know I should be more sympathetic, but for crying out loud, you haven’t exchanged any words with this guy! Calm down! There were “five others before they got to him.” That’s all we hear about those other cancer sufferers. And oh, is Mr. Psycho a delight.
He smiled a little when his turn came. His voice was low, smoky, and dead sexy. “My name is Augustus Waters,” he said. “I’m seventeen. I had a little touch of osteosarcoma a year and a half ago, but I’m just here today at Isaac’s request.”
“And how are you feeling?” asked Patrick.
“Oh, I’m grand.” Augustus Waters smiled with a corner of his mouth. “I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.”
Whatever, he’s sexy. Of course he’s sexy. No one in YA novels falls in love with a guy who isn’t an Adonis. But the way he talks! It’s like he thinks he’s Jay Gatsby.
I don’t know if you are a teenager, were a teenager, or have ever interacted with teenagers, but they don’t talk like this. Human beings don’t talk like this, and if you ever meet one who does, stay away.
“I fear oblivion,” he said without a moment’s pause. “I fear it like the proverbial blind man who’s afraid of the dark.”
Now, the word “pretentious” gets thrown around a lot, and it’s often used improperly. I would like to be clear: this book isn’t pretentious because the main characters say deep stuff. It’s pretentious because they try to say deep stuff, and it falls so flat. These aren’t characters — they’re mouthpieces for John Green’s rejected song lyrics. It’s so artificial and almost pathetic, like if you met Sunshine and Mr. Psycho in real life you’d know instantly that everything they say had been painstakingly written into a little leather-bound book, so they could impress you with their insight.
But we can’t let Sexy Creep have all the painfully-canned witticisms! Shamelessly rip off other people’s ideas, Sunshine!
I looked over at Augustus Waters, who looked back at me. You could almost see through his eyes they were so blue. “There will come a time,” I said, “when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this”—I gestured encompassingly—“will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”
“For naught.” FOR NAUGHT.
Not only does this sound nothing like her internal monologue (which, in case you’d forgotten, uses such profound words like “blushy”), not only does she take a moment to mention once again how gorgeous Mr. Psycho is —
— but she admits that this isn’t even original.
I’d learned this from . . . Peter Van Houten, the reclusive author of An Imperial Affliction, the book that was as close a thing as I had to a Bible. Peter Van Houten was the only person I’d ever come across who seemed to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying, and (b) not have died.
She reads “classic” literature . . . or something desperately trying to be classic.
I hope that’s what Green is planning to reveal: all of Sunshine and Mr. Psycho’s artistic pretense is revealed to be empty posturing, their “Bible” is nothing but a mediocre offering from someone who knows how to game the system, and Houten’s impressionable teen readers have been snowed into thinking his book is deep and meaningful when it’s nothing more than typical YA schlock in a faux-philosophical wrapping.
Anyway, Mr. Psycho is enchanted with her brilliance.
“Goddamn,” Augustus said quietly. “Aren’t you something else.”
Of course she is. The chapter ends with a prayer, in which they name a bunch of dead children who Sunshine either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about, because she doesn’t say a single thing about them. Curtain.
I hope this book is setting me up for a fall. If I have to come to you 10 chapters from now and say, “I was wrong. The author knew what he was doing the entire time, and though it seems like garbage in the beginning, it pays off beautifully,” no one will be happier than me.
Especially since there are . . . 26 more chapters. Of Sunshine and Mr. Psycho.