Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This is the first John Green novel I've read and I have to say that I have mixed feelings about it.
Sixteen year old Hazel Grace Lancaster was diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer that has metastasized into her lungs at age thirteen. After surgery, radiation and chemo, Hazel's lungs began filling with fluid. By the time she was fourteen, Hazel was preparing to die. But a new (fictional) anti-cancer drug, Phalanxifor, resulted in a miraculous reprieve. Still considered  a terminal case, Hazel's damaged lungs require extra oxygen to help her breathe, so she lives life attached to a small oxygen tank. She doesn't attend school but Hazel does go to a cancer support group and it is at this group that she meets a handsome boy named Augustus Waters.

It turns out that seventeen year old Augustus Waters has osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer which has resulted in the amputation of his right leg above the knee. Augustus has been told he has an eighty-five percent chance of remaining cancer free but as he says, he's "on a roller coaster that only goes up".

Attracted to Hazel, who looks astonishingly like his former girlfriend who died of a brain tumour, Gus asks her to come back to his house to watch the movie, "V for Vendetta". Hazel meets Gus' parents and learns about his family and discovers that  before cancer he was a good basketball athlete.

Hazel challenges Gus to read her favourite book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten. Hazel is obsessed with this book which she feels contains some truisms about her life.
"It wasn't even that the book was so good or anything; it was just that the author, Peter Van Houten, seemed to understand me in weird and impossible ways. An Imperial Affliction was my book, in the way my  body was my body, and my thoughts were my thoughts."
In return, Gus challenges Hazel to read something different too; his favourite book, The Price of Dawn which is a novelization of his favourite video game starring Staff Sergeant Max Mayhem.

They read the books but it is Hazel's book that focuses their interest. An Imperial Affliction is a book about a girl named Anna dying of cancer that has a hanging ending and Hazel has always wanted to know what happened to the characters in the novel. When Gus reads the novel, he feels the same way. Gus is able to contact Van Houten via email despite Hazel's prior insistence that he is unreachable. After reading the email sent by Van Houten's assistant,  Lidewij Vliegenthart, Hazel also writes him begging him to tell her what happens to the characters in the novel. The response she receives is that Van Houten cannot respond to her request because his answers might constitute a sequel and therefore violate copyright. The unsuspecting Van Houten invites Hazel to visit him should she ever find herself in Amsterdam, of course knowing full well that she likely won't ever be able to.

But life has its twists and turns and in a strange turn, Hazel and Gus are able to travel to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten.  However, nothing turns out as they quite anticipated. There are no brilliant answers from Van Houten, because as they later learn, he too is searching for answers for a similar tragedy in his own life. Hazel and Gus exprience blossoming love for each other as well as a stunning revelation that tips their already upside down world.

Told in the past tense voice of Hazel, The Fault in Our Stars is about living life in the best way we can in the time we are given and especially for those who die young. Hazel and Gus live their lives as most of us do, with a mixture of good and bad. The only difference is they have less time to do it in. The basic idea of this novel, about the short lives of people who are suffering from a serious illness has been in Green's mind for a long time. Green worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital ministering to the families of children who were dying or who had died from serious illnesses. Expecting to become a minister, Green's experience as a student chaplain changed him and ultimately his choice of vocation.

The novel takes its title from a quote in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which Cassius says, "The fault dear Brutus, is in not our stars/But in ourselves"

There are plenty of cultural references (Swedish hip hop, America's Next Top Model, Anne Frank) in the book. The Fault in Our Stars can be read as just a simple, enjoyable read or the reader can go deeper and consider the many metaphors and symbols in the novel and enjoy those too. Just a few examples will do. Water is a big metaphor in the book. Green states that he wanted to show how often times things that are of benefit can also bring harm. For example, we need water to live but too much water, as in Hazel's case where her lungs continue to fill with water, is deadly. Gus' last name is Waters. And, key events in the book take place in Amsterdam, a city of dykes and canals that are used to keep back the sea, in the same way that her doctor, Maria is trying to keep the water in Hazel's lungs at bay too.

There is plenty of foreshadowing in the novel too. For example, Gus' death is foreshadowed when he and Hazel are watching movies on the flight over to Amsterdam and Gus' movie begins before Hazel's (he is older!) and ends sooner than hers. Another example of foreshadowing is that of Gus always hanging up the phone first when he is talking to Hazel.

Green makes interesting use of the novel An Imperial Affliction. Hazel is focused on this novel because the circumstances of Anna's life mirror her own life. Hazel wants to find out what happens to the characters, particularly Anna's mother, in An Imperial Affliction. This is important to her because as a person with a terminal illness she feels like she is "a grenade". Grenades explode and kill people and Hazel expects her eventual death will similarly cause great hurt and devastation to her parents. It is important to her that her mother continues to live her life since Hazel will one day not be there. Hazel wants to minimize the impact her death will have on her parents. Similarly she doesn't want to fall in love with Augustus for the same reason. For Gus however, this is a risk he is willing to take.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel and one of the reasons for writing it (according to the author) is the realistic portrayal teenagers with a terminal illness. First we see how Hazel's life has been affected by cancer in the part where Hazel's best friend, Kaitlyn takes her shopping. The shopping episode demonstrates what Hazel's life was once like and how different Hazel's life is now. But it also shows that Hazel is a teen with cancer who still likes to shop. Young people with cancer, are still young people. Despite living in a world often filled with hospitals, medical procedures, pain and missed opportunities, they have dreams and desires just like everyone else. And not every ending is a happy one.

Green's use of sarcasm in Hazel's narration makes the two main characters, for whom day to day living is a struggle, very realistic. This realistic portrayal continues throughout the book. Hazel is concerned how her illness will affect others including her parents and Augustus. Gus and Hazel fall in love, just like many teenagers all over the world. When Augustus is dying he is no longer the nice guy he was at the beginning of the novel demonstrating that people who die of a terminal illness are human beings, not saints. Death is the final struggle and most of the time it is not a pretty or even necessarily heroic one.

The Fault In Our Stars is a great read and if you haven't had the time this year, do so.

Book Details:
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
New York: Dutton Group    2012
318 pp.

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