New JK Rowling book
J. K. Rowling is publishing her first adult novel through Little, Brown. This is the kind of news that makes grown men cry happy tears.
A Somewhat Personal Response to “The Fault in Our Stars” - Spoilers
It was John Green’s hope that “The Fault in Our Stars” wouldn’t be looked at as a sad book, or a funny book, or a romance book, or a cancer book, but a book that makes you feel all of the things. Well, I can safely say that all of the things were felt. Mantears were shed, laughs were guffawed, lovey scenes were awwwed at, and my brain and heart were moved in ways that very few books are able to move them.
This response will be spoilery. Not incredibly spoilery, in that I won’t reveal that Page 224 exposes August Waters as an aardvark in a very convincing and attractive mansuit (sorry!), but I won’t actively avoid spoilery things. And I will certainly include quotes that may give clues to bits about the plot. Anyway, if you haven’t read “The Fault in Our Stars,” why are you reading this? I promise that John’s novel is way better than the ramblings of a Tumbling ginger.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is a beautiful meditation on what people leave behind when they die. It’s also a journey about perspective and absolutes, because no one will leave behind That One Thing. Hazel Grace, our protagonist and narrator who is unfortunately dying of cancer, starts out the novel thinking of herself as a grenade. This stems from (besides the obvious fact that she’s a teenager with cancer and, even worse, parents) the time she was in the hospital bed, on the verge of death. She, her parents, and the doctors thought she was going. As her parents held her hand, sobbing, she overheard her broken mother whisper to her father, “I won’t be a mom anymore.” Hazel survives that day, living with the knowledge that her parents will never be okay. They may adapt, yes, but they will spend their lives taking care of her, broken because their daughter has cancer, and then they will someday spend their lives not taking care of her, broken because their daughter has died. She’s hesitant to begin a relationship with Augustus Waters, a boy she’s shocked even talks to her, because of her status as a “grenade.” One day, she will detonate… leaving her parents, Augustus, and the lives of everyone else she touched broken. Her journey is one of realization: realizing that she doesn’t have control over those who love her (Augustus: “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you”), realizing that she isn’t the sole reason that anyone is alive (her mom has secretly been taking classes), and realizing that there is too much wonder in the world and in Being a Person to worry about the damage one inflicts on people by dying.
Augustus’s journey is a different (and imperfect) one. Members of his ever expanding harem (I may or may not be included in that - Straight Guys Who Love Augustus Waters Anon?) may argue, but I’m not sure if Augustus ever comes to the same level clarity about his condition that Hazel does. Augustus also has cancer, but has a 80/20 chance of survival compared to Hazel’s status as “terminal.” Augustus, though, is obsessed with dying for something worth dying for. Cancer isn’t something that you fight. Both Hazel and Augustus agree about the lameness of people who say “he/she fought hard” (more on that later), but Hazel is comfortable in knowing that she won’t go down in the history books as An Important Person. Augustus… not so much. Augustus spends his life trying to be exceptional, even using video games as a means to die heroically much to the chagrin of those he plays with, never realizing how truly exceptional he already is. Hazel is often frustrated with how her love isn’t enough for Augustus; he must be loved by the world. And is he to blame? While Hazel’s outlook is the more mature one, Augustus’s is emotional and tragic and so damn real. Everyone wants to live the Life Worth Leading. “The Fault in Our Stars” is at once about the futility of seeking such a life, the fleeting nature of accomplishments that make people worthwhile, and how nothing is ever enough. Those may seem like bleak themes, for sure, but John Green weaves them together with this fondness of life (“personhood”) that will make readers, young and old, relate to both Hazel and Augustus’s internal conflicts.
I used to work at a bookstore where Issue Books were the thing to read. I can’t tell you how many times my boss would gush about Another Autism Book by Sympathetic Author. Those books have their places, sure, but I’m looking forward to seeing what such readers will do when they get their hands on “The Fault in Our Stars.” Before reading it, this book may be mistaken for a Cancer Teens by Other Sympathetic Author, but… heh. John Green, who worked as a chaplain at a children’s hospital, dispels the myth that every kid with cancer is perfect, strong, brave, and a veteran/martyr of the war against cancer. Hazel and Augustus are flawed, brilliant, and real humans that aren’t defined by their cancer. They joke about their disease… a lot. They are put-off by the sympathetic looks of strangers and I imagine they’d be put off by the sympathetic eyes of readers who see them as avatars of cancer instead of teenagers.
The character Peter Van Houten, a broken man who wrote Hazel’s favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction,” embodies the idea that even the greatest accomplishments, much like having cancer, do not canonize. I won’t get much into Va Houten, who I often sympathized with more than Hazel and Augustus because of his utter lack of the ability to enjoy life, but he spends his time saying pretty profound things. Often horrific things, too. But for all of the hurt he causes, he also said, “Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.’ Easy enough to say when you’re a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.”
A few other quotes that made me smile, thing, or… well, feel all of the things:
“You are so busy being you that you have no idea how unprecedented you are.”
“As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
“Vaguely pedophilic swing set seeks the butts of children.”
“I love you present tense.”
And many more.
I’m a proud member of Nerdfighteria (John and Hank Green’s online community of Awesome), but I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Esther Earl, the girl to whom this book was dedicated. Esther passed away in 2010 and, while this book is not based on her life, it is certainly inspired by all that she and other teens with such an imperial affliction go through. I have never known a young person with cancer, but I have known a few young people who have died - one of them who was very close to me. The thought put into this book, the meditations on loss and meaning and life and death, spoke to my memories of that person and how I felt when she passed. It also made me want to use my seemingly unlimited supply of life to do the best living that I can. See, John Green’s books are different than most. They’re entertaining, they made you cry, they make you laugh, and they make you all warm inside. But what makes them different, for me at least, is that they make you want to live to a higher standard.
They make you better.
The only criticism of the book I’ve read (seriously, look at the Amazon reviews - it’s insane) is that the characters are a bit too smart. That their intelligence messes a bit with some readers’ suspension of disbelief. I hear that, and some folks may have a problem with it - me, not so much. John Green has openly said that he likes to write about smart people and, yes, Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are smart as hell. I may even argue, based on the philosophical complexity of their conversations in relation to their age, that they’re geniuses. From where I’m standing, their intelligence never once took away from the genuineness of their characters. Thomas Hardy once said something to the effect of “compared to a real person, even the most complex character is but a bag of bones.” As great a mustache as Mr. Hardy has, I’d disagree; vehemently at that. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are real. I mean, who can argue with that? They’re alive right now in the pages of “The Fault in Our Stars,” living their brief infinity over and over again.
Patrick Shand is a writer of things and stuff. He has written for IDW Publishing (Angel), Zenescope Entertainment (Grimm Fairy Tales, 1000 Ways to Die), Titan Books (Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion: The TV Series, the Movies, the Comic Books and More: The Essential Guide to the Whedonverse), and more. He is currently working on a young adult novel, comic book properties that he can’t yet blab about, and teaching screenwriting at Five Towns College.