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.