Monday, 28 October 2013

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

I was all prepared to bawl when I sat down to this book. For months, this review has been getting an inordinate number of "likes" on Goodreads, with pretty much just a picture of a girl with tears streaming down her face. It's supposed to be emotional. And I am a huge suck. (More with movies than books, but still.)

So, I girded my loins, laid in a supply of Kleenex (actually, I never know where the Kleenex is) and sat down to read and cry.

And didn't. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I teared up a tiny bit twice, but I don't think any tears even escaped my eyes.

This is a story about terminally ill teenagers. It's supposed to tug at the heartstrings. But what I actually did enjoy far more than that was the way it mostly avoided easy melodrama, too heroic characters and too much emotional manipulation. It was fairly matter-of-fact. Those who were dying were not saints. They struck me as, well, fairly precocious but not utterly unbelievable teenagers. The emotional manipulation was not overdone. I mean, you're dealing with dying young women and men, there's going to be emotion, but it didn't felt like it was purposefully done to make me feel all the feelings, without much underneath.

But here is what I liked best. None of the characters felt like they were supposed to be representative. I hate it when what I call "issue books" try to come up with representative characters - the mother who is the Mother Who Can't Deal With Her Child's Death and Is In Denial. The Father Who Is Sad and Withdrawn. The Child Who Is Facing Death Bravely. None of that here. These characters were only themselves, and not trying to stand in for textbook descriptions of How People Deal With Terminally Ill Children. I really liked both of Hazel's parents, and who they were and what they did and why.

Yes, the teenagers are precocious. But I've always said I'd rather listen to the witty dialogue of Veronica Mars, however "unrealistic" it might be, than to how teenagers actually talk. Plus, I was pretty precocious myself.

Hazel has terminal cancer, but at the moment the book starts, the growth of her metastases has been arrested by a new miracle drug. No one knows how long it will work, and she's still going to die, but the timeline has been thrown into absolute unknown territory. At a Support Group she hates, she meets a boy who had osteosarcoma, named Gus. Or August. These facts are far more important than his diagnosis.

How do you fall in love when you know you're not going to have a full lifespan? Do you try to stop it from happening, to protect others? What if they don't want to be protected? And is, in the end, the pain worth it?

This book picks its way fairly sensitively through the issues, through snarky and wiseass teenagers, and if I never teared up, I still enjoyed it. (One moment with Hazel's mother, in particular, did bring a tear to my eye.) I've never had to deal with someone young dying of cancer, but I've been up close and personal with someone dying of cancer, and I know some of the moments of waiting, of laughter, of tears, of snark, of grace and of excruciating, unattractive pain. This book does fairly well with those. It didn't make me bawl, it isn't my book of the year, but it's a solid Young Adult entry and Green avoids most of the pitfalls of "issues books" that make me want to tear out my hair in anger.

2 comments:

  1. I'm 70% through the book now but I feel like I've already seen the direction the book is going and now I'm just reading it out to the end. Great review. Have you read Looking for Alaska? I was really annoyed with the authors portrayal of teenagers in that book so it's taking me a bit to shake that off in this book now.

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    1. I think the only other John Green I've read was Paper Towns. Reading that and this made me feel like I'd seen what he could do, so I haven't been rushing out to find others.

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