The Fault in Our Stars: Use Your (Literary) Allusion

The Fault in Our Stars John Green

Rating: 4/5 stars. 

(Yes, I’m going to start giving ratings. Rating scale to follow, but it’s pretty self-explanatory. Also, spoilers. In case there are few of you who haven’t read this book yet. )

The Fault in Our Stars is a great book.

That may seem like an obvious thing to say. It is a bestseller, received rave reviews, and is a top ten list favourite. But I want to be clear. It’s a great book, no qualifiers. It’s not a great YA book. It’s not a great cancer book. It’s a great book.

It has fully realized characters. It has a plot that is compelling but also wonderfully complex, including a book within a book and lots of meta-discussion of what novels are for, anyway. It has an ambiguous ending that is still satisfying. It’s full of symbols and motifs and allusions.  It’s an English student’s (and teacher’s) dream.

I struggled with the dialogue at times. Hazel and Augustus are clearly of above average intelligence and confidence, and I can suspend disbelief, because let’s face it, a realistic portrayal of teenage speech would be unreadable, but, I will never believe that the words “existentially fraught” came out of a 17 year old’s mouth.

The only gripe I have about Hazel and Augustus’ relationship is related to the sex scene – or lack thereof. Green basically does the “pan away from the bed to fluttering curtains and birds singing” thing that you see in old movies. This is the only time that the YA-ness was obvious and intrusive.  I’m not looking for a detailed “sex romp” (trademark Kristilyn) but this was a pivotal scene and I needed a little more than a Venn diagram (though I was duly impressed by a sex-related Venn diagram.)

I really appreciate that Augustus was far from the perfect boy he appeared to be at first. I was actually livid with him when he had sex with Hazel before revealing his medical status. Hazel sacrificed her happiness with Augustus because she didn’t want to be a “grenade”, only for Augustus to become the grenade himself.

But what I really want to talk about is the abundance of literary allusions. I read TFioS right after finishing Infinite Jest, so I was still in a DFW (David Foster Wallace) state of mind. So, when I started noticing references to Infinite Jest, I thought I was imagining it. But there are too many for it to be a coincidence.

There was the support group setting, and infinity as a metaphor, and the meta-discussion of the artist’s responsibility to their audience, and the critical view of pop culture. There were really specific things, too, like the idea of a novel ending in the middle of a sentence (DFW’s first novel, The Broom of the System, famously does the same,) and the epigram that echos Infinite Jest‘s closing line.

TFioS opens with: 

As the tide washed in, the Dutch Tulip Man faced the ocean: “Conjoiner rejoinder poisoner concealer revelator. Look at it, rising up and rising down, taking everything with it.”

Infinite Jest closes with:

And when he came to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.

A quick Google search reveals that Green is a BIG fan of DFW, so I’m pretty confident that I’m not imagining things anymore.

While I don’t have as much evidence to back it up, I see a lot of Doestoevsky, too. I read The Idiot recently, which dealt with sickness (epilepsy and consumption,) knowing you’re going to die and what that does to a person, and sacrificing yourself for a greater cause. And let’s not forget Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, another disease book (consumption again.) It deals with the futility of love, the destructive beauty of disease, and the question of where the disease ends and the person begins. All themes that are well represented here.

And, how’s this for obscure? Augustus’ favourite band is “The Hectic Glow.” Henry David Thoreau, one of my fav quotable dead white dudes, wrote this:

Decay and disease are often beautiful, like the pearly tear of the shellfish and the hectic glow of consumption.

I have to hand it to Green for giving shout outs to DFW and Thoreau (and Shakespeare, and Kierkegaard, and many more I’ve missed,) in a YA book. Most 13 year olds aren’t going to get it, but so what? The book is still great, and for those kids who go on to read or study literature, they’re going to have a basis in themes and archetypes they’re likely to encounter. And for those of us who do appreciate the references, it’s just such a huge treat.

Adults, teens, seniors citizens: read this book. And remember, if you make it through without crying, you have no soul.

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17 comments

  1. Kristilyn

    *high fives* on the sex romp reference. 🙂

    Great review, Laura! Personally, I thought this was a great book, though probably not my favourite John Green book. I actually really liked the allusion to sex, but that we weren’t shown. I think it made it more special that way?

    I can understand the struggle with the dialogue. I think there are a handful of YA books out there that are just so existential, as if the characters lives are the be all, end all … it can seem farfetched, so I usually read those in moderation.

    And I’m pretty sure I must have no soul because while I found this one to be sad, I didn’t cry. I think John blends humour and sadness so easily that it’s really hard to shed a tear when reading!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • lauratfrey

      Heh, I was just joking about the crying thing. I actually didn’t cry as much as I thought I would. And the only thing that made me cry HARD was when Hazel’s mom said “I won’t be a mom anymore”- what a punch to the gut that line is.

      So should I pick up Paper Towns or Looking for Alaska next? 🙂

  2. Brie @ Eat Books

    Haha @ Kristilyn above – I have no soul either 😦 Which isn’t to say I didn’t find this book sad, but I’m hit or miss when it comes to actually shedding tears when reading a book. Maybe it had to do with me relating to the book in a different way than others might. I dunno – sometimes I’m frustrated with myself when I don’t cry in a book that I know everyone else is crying in!

    ANYWAY. I loved your review. I wish I had been in a position like yours to have seen/caught some of the literary references that you did. And as for the dialogue (I know we’ve talked about this before), but it actually didn’t really bother me that much. I’ll take overly-smart and witty banter over gross teenage speech any day! 😉 It reminded me of The Gilmore Girls – their dialogue was always amazing to me.

    • lauratfrey

      I didn’t watch Gilmour Girls (I should fix that) but I did watch Dawson’s Creek, and that’s where my mind went. And that’s not necessarily a good thing – I had a real love/hate relationship with that show. Love Pacey, hate Dawson 🙂

      It was total coincidence that I read Infinite Jest just before. If I hadn’t, all that would have been over my head. I love it when reading works out like that!

  3. Tanya @ Mom's Small Victories

    ok, I didn’t read the entire review and appreciate the warning that there are spoilers. Because I AM one of the few who haven’t read this book. Seems like I wait till a year or two after everyone else does. Like I just read Hunger Games #1 last month!

  4. Caitlin

    good review. I really liked this book. I didn’t necessarily get any of the literary references… I did feel like I was reading a script for a new CW show.

    It wasn’t right that Augustus slept with her and didn’t tell her. That said, the book seemed to hint a lot about Gus’ flaws and his immaturity. Having the girlfriend that looked just like her, jumping to use his wish for her, not really visiting in the hospital, making her go to him and rarely going to her. It reminded me a lot of boys in high school (minus all the fancy talkin).

    At the same time, he gave her a break from the isolation of her disease. He let her be normal for a short time and I thought it was sweet. Maybe unintentional, but sweet.

    There were a lot of details I didn’t care for too. Especially the drunk old man. I guess it was a dose of reality again for hazel and gus, but I found his character a bit unbelievable. Especially in the end.

    I was kicking myself that I didn’t catch on to Gus being sick earlier. Why was he at the hospital, but not waiting for her? Why did he have a wish when he was ‘cured’, why did she keep noticing he was struggling with sitting and standing? Why were there meetings between the parents before going on the trip? Sometimes I think I don’t catch the noticeable things because I read in the middle of the night…. sometimes I think maybe I am just not the quick 🙂

    sadly, I did not cry.. I didn’t feel a punch in the gut when Hazel’s mom said she wouldn’t be a mother anymore… In fact I didn’t remember that until I read this. I guess I am souless., but that’s ok.

    What i really liked about this book is that it was just a tiny glimpse into a life. Not really sugar coated and while they try very hard to be all Dawson’s Creek/Gilmore Girls like, real life doesn’t tend to work out that way. Just like it did here.

    Hazel’s life is one of isolation. Trapped by a disease with a short vacation from it to experience teen romance/heart break.

    I am giving this book to my boyfriend… going to see if he has more soul than I do… I think he is going to cry like a baby!

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  7. Antonio

    John Green on the basis of An Imperial Affliction: ‘An Imperial Affliction is in some ways based on two books I love. The first is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most of the references Hazel and Augustus make to AIA are related in some way to something from Infinite Jest, and I wanted readers of IJ to be able to make those comparisons.’

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  10. emilymullaswilson

    Wow…someone who likes John Green, Dostoevsky AND Thomas Mann? I just met you and I already love you. Also, have you read The Pale King by DFW? It makes life look all weird and bendy and fun house mirror-ish.

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