Hazel Grace Lancaster has terminal cancer. An experimental drug has given her a few years by stopping the growth of her tumor, but the prognosis is still not good. Humoring her parents she attends a cancer support group where she meets Augustus Waters. Hazel, her oxygen tank, Augustus Waters, and his prosthetic leg find more than friendship as, together, they travel the world seeking answers to the larger questions of life.
“Whose story do you seek?”
“Just…what happens to everyone.” (The Fault in Our Stars, 190)
I guess if you ask a modest question you get a modest answer. And yet, this is the question central to the story line of “The Fault in Our Stars”, and it’s never answered. Not even modestly.
The story itself is good. And romantic, which surely accounts for all the young female fans of the book. And the older female fans, too, for that matter. And it feels deep. And it feels like it asks all the right questions. And the kids are smart and the adults are too. And it’s just a novel that can feel good to read. And on that level, the book is good one.
The protagonist, Hazel Grace Lancaster (just “Hazel”) is a teeny bit angsty and rude in the first few pages, but it must have been a bad day as she moves out of it soon enough. She is precocious – she’d argue that its a side effect of her cancer – and she likes to read. Her favorite novel is a (fictional) existential one that attempts to deal with cancer and suffering, but falls short. And it is the context of this sub-novel that Hazel learns to ask her questions.
Her boyfriend, Augustus Waters, is a nice boy. He comes from a nominally Christian family and believes in “Something with a capital S” (168), though it is not clear as to why he can’t subscribe to the “heaven” apparently believed in by his parents. (I am not talking of the heaven Augustus refers to. The “heaven where you ride unicorns, play harps, and live in a mansion made of clouds” (168) but of the more normal vision of Heaven that most Christian people I know subscribe to.) Like Hazel, Augustus is precocious. And also like her, he likes to read. His favorite novels – series of novels – are based on his favorite video games. It’s in the context of this video game that Augustus tries to make sense of life – going out of his way to save other characters in the game. Going out of his way to be a hero and in that way leave his mark on the world and avoid “oblivion.”
Through the characters then, we see a debate between agnosticism and Christianity. Nihilism and hope. And here is where the novel falls short. Instead of having a character – any character – attempt to answer that question definitively, everyone moves around in a philosophical circle, poking and prodding with more questions: What is the meaning of the life I still have? What is the meaning of suffering? Why does Maslow assume I am less of a person because I have cancer? And in the end, the question has been torn apart and dissected and analyzed and left bare and wounded on the table for everyone to stare at.
Those are great questions! And not inappropriate for the “young adults” (high school age, please) reading these books. But those aren’t the kind of questions that should be just asked. They are questions that demand to be explored. And the novel just doesn’t do that. On any level.
John Green is a great writer, and can really turn a phrase. But the clever words sometimes disguise what he’s actually trying to say. For example, Hazel’s father tells her
“I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.”
What does that even mean? But he continues,
“And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it – or my observation of it – is temporary?”
Again, other than the nihilistic undertones, what does it actually mean?
Later, Hazel expounds on this and I am not clear as to whether she is bringing clarity to her father’s statement, or simply adding her own thoughts to his.
“I thought of my dad telling me that the universe wants to be noticed. But what we want is to be noticed by the universe, to have the universe give a shit what happens to us – not the collective idea of sentient life but each of us, as individuals.”
So close, Hazel. So close. I bring this to your attention, if only to note that this is a book that brings up big questions in cloudy terms that lead to foggy generalizations. Parental guidance is recommended to bring clear vision.
One last point I’d like to clarify. These “deep” questions can be explored from any angle. I’m not saying I thought Green should have said definitively there is a heaven, or that there isn’t. A good book doesn’t have to agree with me. I’m just asking that he definitively say something. And that the something is clear. Without clarity, there’s no debate at all. Without clarity, the reader is left with the assumption that it just doesn’t matter. And if there’s one thing that should be clear in a book full of people with cancer: it is that it absolutely does matter.
What You Need to Know
- Role Models/Authority Figures – All people in the novel are portrayed with dignity. Both of the main characters have two parent, loving households (not perfect, loving). Parents maintain their authority, children are respectful.
- Violence – None
- Sexual Content – Groping, described rather candidly. Nonmarital sex described in vague language, but presented as acceptable. Crude language referencing the act in relation to a video game being played (280)
- Language – Mild cursing
- Consumerism – Mention of Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Sylvia Platt.
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs – Gus is constantly putting a cigarette in his mouth, but not smoking (it is his metaphor), Hazel and Gus drink champagne at a dinner (not to the point of drunkenness), one adult character is an alcoholic (not looked upon favorably)
- Religion – Major debate going on between agnosticism and Christianity. Passing reference to Venerable Antonietta Meo (there is an implicit misunderstanding here of heroic virtue), discussion on the meaning of suffering, support groups are held in the basement of an Episcopal Church in the “literal heart of Jesus” – phrase is mocking and biting at first, but mellows with the book. The support group leader is portrayed as weak.
- Other – Now a major motion picture. See Steven D. Greydanus’ review here at the National Catholic Register. Discussion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Reference to Zeno’s Paradox (though not applied correctly), passing but not insignificant reference to Rene Magritte,