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03 December 2017

Book Review: The Fault in our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just got back from a quick weekend get-away to Amsterdam, my first time in the city. Before we left, I handed my 13 year old this book.

I had read it myself, years ago, but didn't remember much about it. But I love John Green's voice and see much of that style in my own son's writing. Plus, Amsterdam! We love reading books that take place in the places we currently are.

My kid read it on the flight from Africa to Amsterdam. He reads quickly so he finished it in the Schiphol Airport while we were trying to figure out how to buy train tickets. He did not cry. He already knew the ending. He knows all the endings. The internet and his natural curiosity have created endless moments for us to say, a la River Song, "Spoilers!"

Then, as we were traipsing along the canals and bridges, we stumbled across the now-famous "Fault In Our Stars" bench, where in the movie adaptation, Gus tells Hazel he's sick again.

Then we went to the Anne Frank house and I suddenly vividly recalled Hazel's struggle with the stairs.

Currently, the last room you go to in the museum is a space where they have filmed people, regular people and famous people, discussing the impact of Anne Frank.

And there John Greene was on the screen, reading from The Fault In Our Stars "At the end of the hallway, a huge book, bigger than a dictionary, contained the names of the 103,000 dead from the Netherlands in the Holocaust. The book was turned to the page with Anne Frank's name, but what got me was the fact that right beneath her name there were four Aron Franks. Four. Four Aron Franks without museums, without historical markers, without anyone to mourn them."

So when I got home, I borrowed the book back from my son. I'm a quick reader, too, apparently. I just read it in one sitting.

And then I read some of the reviews; the anger of some people who think that teenagers don't talk like that and the whole book is pretentious.

But, see, some teens do talk like that. And the whole point of Gus WAS that he was pretentious. Hazel loved him most in those moments when he wasn't, but she was charmed when he was. "When surprised and excited and innocent Gus emerged from Grand Gesture Metaphorically Inclined Augustus, I literally could not resist."

And I loved the conversations they had about scrambled eggs.

Frankly, one of the reasons I love John Green is that I see my son in so many of Green's characters; too clever by half, gloriously nerdy, and awkwardly kind and generous.

So all ye who think these characters were not typical, shush. There is no typical. And just because the world likes to present all teens as vapid consumers of media and junk food, some teens defy that generalization.

Yes, the book is a little over-wrought. It's like watching the movie Titanic, which I have never done, because who wants to get attached to a bunch of characters who you know are just going to die in the end?

But isn't that was life actually is? Getting attached to characters who are just going to die in the end? "I am in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I'm in love with you."

Hazel and Gus are philosophical in a way that I find totally believable. They are smart, thoughtful kids who have been in the brink. When you have been to the brink and somehow survive, the way you approach the world changes entirely.

When Hazel veers off into cynical philosophy, the wisdom doesn't seem out of place in a 16 year-old's body. Because that 16 year-old has tasted the end and remembers what it tastes like:
"Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy? (This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.)"

Or when Gus is desperately (though we don't yet know it's desperate) trying to make a mark, even while playing a video game, we understand that he understands what it's like to look death in the face and wonder if you've done enough with your life:
"All salvation is temporary. I bought them a minute. Maybe that's the minute that buys them an hour, which is the hour that buys them a year. No one's gonna buy them forever, Hazel Grace, but my life bought them a minute. And that's not nothing."

The character of Peter Van Houten was a stretch, but in a book laced with metaphor, he fit perfectly:
"My response is being written with ink and paper in the glorious tradition of our ancestors and then transcribed by Ms. Vliegenthart into a series of 1s and 0s to travel through the insipid web which has lately ensnared our species, so I apologize for any errors or omissions that may result."

The process of healing:
"Each sleep ended to reveal a person who seemed a bit more like me."

The revelation of seeing yourself through someone else's eyes:
"You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are."

And the knowledge, that must be relearned on every bad day, that every day you are alive is, literally, a chance in of lifetime:
"I was thinking about the universe wanting to be noticed, and how I had to notice it as best I could. I felt that I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay, and also that I owed a debt to everybody who didn't get to be a person anymore and everyone who hadn't gotten to be a person yet."


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