A Pain That Demands to Be Felt: The Fault in Our Stars

“Cancer books suck,” she says. “Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy.”

The Fault in Our Stars is decidedly not a cancer book. Rather, John Green writes a stirring novel that grapples with big subjects–life, death, love–with a harmonious balance of liveliness and poignancy. Even though an experimental drug has miraculously prevented it from spreading, Hazel Grace lives with cancer every day. She must bring her oxygen tank everywhere she goes, which not only slows her down, but is a constant reminder that physically marks her. At a cancer support group she meets Augustus Waters, who is in remission from osteosarcoma and has a prosthetic leg to show for it. The story follows the two as they fall in love through their disparaging sense of humor and love of literature.

What makes The Fault in Our Stars most successful is the characters’ likableness. Apart from being undeniably perceptive and quick-witted, Hazel and Augustus also occupy a strange space of unexpected youthful maturity that defies the construct of teenagers as unduly angsty and unsophisticated. John Green captures this in a very smart way during their first few interactions. When Augustus admits to the support group his fear of oblivion, Hazel offers, “There was a time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be a 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.” Hazel Grace is no ordinary sixteen year old girl.

And neither is Augustus Waters an ordinary seventeen year old boy. Indeed, he is a refreshing intellectual departure from the mainstream depictions of young adults as unthinking receptacles of pop culture and consumerism. In one scene, after pulling out a box of cigarettes, he explains to a horrified Hazel: “…I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing…I’m a big believer in metaphor, Hazel Grace.” Augustus appreciates how words and gestures can matter in a world like ours; and it is precisely this self-aware literary-ness, that makes The Fault in Our Stars such a captivating read. For those of us who delight in the rich relationship between writing and reality, John Green delivers an artfully crafted piece. He plays with language and expectation in a manner that rejects powerlessness and instead makes an argument for responding to adversity by taking power from the very things that oppress us.

In both life and in literature, conflicts can arise from the imprudence of individuals. However, this story’s circumstances are organic and externally caused–the fault is in the stars, not in any particular person–which is unjustifiably unfair and frustrating. We, as readers, are mindful that both Hazel and Augustus present high emotional risk factors: the likelihood of death is high. To allow ourselves to become invested in them is plainly imprudent, and yet we do it, risking our hearts in the process. Fortunately, Green both acknowledges this risk and honors it by being playful and candid in his rendering of the plot.

The novel is clearly conscientious of the expected tropes of both the epic romance and of the “cancer book” and is invested in subverting them both. In fact, the novel seems to be specifically dissatisfied by the constant yet empty reassurances made in times of misfortune. Green could have been easily ensnared in an oppressive sentimentality, but he instead artfully dances between nihilism and hopefulness. There are dark moments when cancer is inhibitive and annoying. There are exuberant moments that could not have happened without cancer. There are simple moments in which we forget about cancer altogether. Most striking in this story is the way in which pain is present, but not relentless.  In avoiding both an air of self-satisfying encouragement and desolate de, The Fault in Our Stars becomes all the more gratifying.

Still, as much as we like them, this book is not about Hazel and Augustus. It is not about cancer, either. The Fault in Our Stars is about how life can be distressingly cruel and full of disappointment. It is about the choices we make in response to hardships and the brokenness that can come out of it no matter what we do. As Augustus puts it, “That’s the thing about pain…it demands to be felt.” Despite this, Green manages to underline a heartbreaking reality with an appreciation for the inalienable beauty of life and will keep readers thinking about this long after they have read the last page.

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