When I started reading The Fault in Our Stars, I thought for a while that I would probably have quit reading if it weren’t this month’s selection in our book club. But if I had quit, I would have missed out on a moving story.
There’s nothing objectionable in the first few chapters, there’s just not much that’s particularly thought-provoking either. Yes, it’s a shame these young people are dying of cancer, but that’s not enough of a reason to want to listen in on their lives as they hang out together and watch movies or play video games.
Perhaps it was when Hazel talked about An Imperial Affliction, a book that was like scripture to her, that I began to get more interested. I couldn’t understand her obsession with finding out what happened to the characters in the novel after it ended, but I was intrigued by the insights in the novel and their effect on her.
Her deepening relationship with Augustus offers further insights on these young people’s views on both life and death, from the perspective of those who have had to come to grips with such things far younger than most. They don’t want anyone’s pity; they would really rather not have their physical problems noticed at all. (Of course, they would really rather be ordinary, healthy teenagers, but cancer took that away from them.)
I have known a few people whose son or daughter was dying of cancer, but none of them especially well, and I didn’t know their children. I have wondered sometimes why it seems that all these children dying young seem so heroic, facing their pain and impending death with such good spirits.
This book says it really isn’t that way. Not that some young people aren’t that way, but that young people dying of cancer (or anything else) are neither more nor less likely than anyone else to have great strength of character. Some are a joy to be around; others, not so much.
One interesting discussion was about Augustus’s wish he could really make a difference with his life. Most of us want that, I imagine, and young people especially tend to have very big dreams. (My younger son worries sometimes that he won’t do anything really important in life; I tell him that important doesn’t necessarily mean something large numbers of people will know about.)
Reflecting about this later, Augustus mentions the physician’s dictum “Do no harm” and suggests there’s something to be said for a life (he has Hazel in mind) that does no harm. I can’t help but think I would find that a rather empty comfort, whether said about me or someone I loved. I don’t expect to have a wide impact in the world, but I want to have a positive impact in my own small corner of the world, not just avoid having a negative impact.
One reader review at amazon.com says that the characters aren’t really believable, that the teenagers don’t really sound like teenagers but like John Green. I have relatively little experience of what teenagers are like, mostly limited to having been one and having had one (now 21) and having another now (turns 14 in July). So I don’t know what most teenagers are like, or how having cancer would affect their approach to life.
But according to the leader of our book club, John Green does have experience working with young people with cancer, so I’m inclined to think that his characters reflect the reality he has observed.