In case you’ve been living on the moon for the past two years, The Fault in Our Stars is a wildly popular YA novel by John Green about two teenagers, Hazel and Augustus, who are living with cancer and falling for each other. It explores the awkwardness of young love, the “side effects” of dying, and the meaning (if there is any) of life. I first read TFiOS when it was published over two years ago, but I never wrote a review on it. With the movie adaptation coming out in less than a week, I decided to re-read the book and write down my thoughts on it.
I recently read Esther Earl’s posthumous book, This Star Won’t Go Out, and it definitely affected my re-read of TFiOS. TFiOS is dedicated to Esther, who died of cancer as a teenager and was friends with John Green. Her book is a compilation of letters and journal entries, which chronicle many of the same fears that Hazel and Gus struggle with in TFiOS. Esther was afraid of dying without having made a difference in the world, and Gus, similarly, is afraid of oblivion. Hazel worries what will happen to her parents after she dies, and much of Esther’s writing is concerned with how her illness affects her family. Hazel is clearly not Esther, as John Green has continually said, but the book is definitely inspired by her spirit and a tribute to her life.
I think TFiOS is so popular because it doesn’t talk down to its readers. Many YA books are very superficial, or hammer away insistently at one theme or message. But in TFiOS, John Green explores the complexities of life and death without watering down his ideas or becoming repetitive. The concepts explored in the novel are deep and don’t always have easy answers. And Green doesn’t try to tack on a feel good, one-size-fits-all solution to problems such as the definition of a meaningful life and eventual human oblivion. Oftentimes the characters disagree on these issues, and Green lets them hash it out and let the reader decide who is right.
At the same time, TFiOS is a teenage love story, and there is a nice balance between existential crises and adolescent awkwardness. Hazel and Gus question the meaning of their lives more than your typical teenagers because they know they have limited time, but they also text, flirt, and play video games. They use phrases like “OMG” in conjunction with “self-aggrandizing.” In writing a witty love story about kids who know how it feels to be dying, Green has concocted a perfect formula for discussing important issues while keeping teenage readers invested and amused.
There are times, however, when Green’s voice comes through too strongly in his characters. All of them have the same grand, self-indulgent vocabulary. Sometimes the book seems like a conversation Green is having with himself, rather than one between two teenagers. While his ideas are interesting and worthwhile, I wish he had his characters express them in different styles.
But I can overlook this fault because the book is almost perfect in every other way. It inspires readers to embrace Esther Earl’s outlook on life: appreciate every simple moment you have on Earth, and try to make it a better place, even in a small way. In TFiOS, Hazel often addresses the “side effects” of dying: depression, worrying, nostalgia, “almost everything.” But I would argue that these are side effects of living. And, I think Hazel and Esther would agree, that they’re worth the pain.