So many young adult romances these days are so serious and gloomy that it's refreshing when one comes along that is full of spirit and humor. And that's ironic in this case because the two main characters of The Fault in Our Stars have good reason to be gloomy. One has terminal cancer, and the other had his leg amputated in order to remove his cancer. Their early encounters with near-death has given Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters a jaded view on life, which shows in their witty humor. These kids aren't heroes or fighters, though that's what everyone calls them. They just happen to be dying from an anomaly of their bodies. Yet they learn how to enjoy the small things and to find love, which is important. This story, despite its subject matter, had me laughing for most of it. When it gets to the final stretch, when things grow predictably gloomy, I grew bored, but I can see the appeal to the many readers who have fallen in love with John Green's tale.
The story is told from the perspective of Hazel Grace, a sixteen year old girl who has lived past her life expectancy because of a miracle drug called Phalanxifor (which doesn't really exist). Her parents want her to be as happy as she can. So rather than mope about, she must attend support group meetings, where Patrick, the support group leader, talks about God and about how he (Patrick, not God) lost his testicles to survive cancer and how everything will be alright in the end. The kind of stuff that makes Hazel gag. Her only friend is Isaac, who is about to lose his eyes in order to (hopefully) defeat cancer, but one day a hot boy turns up named Augustus Waters. And the first thing Augustus does is stare at her. Stare and stare and stare, until she stares back. He asks her out, breaks past her defenses, and shows her V for Vendetta because she reminds him of Natalie Portman.
And so they continue to be friends, but definitely more than friends. They fall in love, but take awhile to admitting it. She doesn't want to hurt anybody because she knows she will die young. Augustus, or Gus, has already been hurt when his ex-girlfriend lost her battle to cancer (Hazel would hate to know I used that metaphor). Hazel eventually shares her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, by Peter Van Houten (also made up), with Gus. This book becomes almost central to the conflict, as the two want to know how it ends. Van Houten, maddeningly, ended it too abruptly, and Hazel's one wish is to know how the characters' stories resolve.
The first two-thirds of this book are fantastic. Hazel is an intelligent, hilarious narrator, and the dialogues between her and Gus are full of energy and wit. Green has the courage to write teenage characters who are smart when so many other teenage characters in YA fiction try not to be so smart. The dialogue, I'll admit, is not entirely believable, but what matters is that the dialogue is lots of fun. It isn't aiming to be real. It's very much like Diablo Cody's Juno, another teenager who spoke with too much wit, but without which the movie wouldn't have been so fantastic. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this book, and it's not often a book allows me to do that.
But, of course, this is a book about cancer, and most any book about cancer has a part where you will cry. You will cry because the person with cancer dies, or you will cry because they overcome all odds and survive. Either way, there is that serious moment when things look bad, or when you just don't know what will happen, and that's no different for this book. The problem is, the book gets really dull. The last third loses much of its energy, inevitably, and while it never gets bad, Green does a lot of philosophical explaining, and none of it is particularly mind-blowing stuff. This last third of the book, more than the rest, is a meditation on life, on the fact that everyone is a part of this world for a brief amount of time, but some people are on it for an even briefer amount of time. The book grasps at an over-reaching philosophy on life's grand meaning, and ends up finding a new way to say something not all that new.
Not that I mean to bring a gloomy note to the end of my review. John Green is clearly a talented and very imaginative writer. What makes The Fault in Our Stars so enjoyable is that its sole mission is not to elevate these cancer kids to the status of heroes. The book's mission is to make them human, make them real, and make them into people you wouldn't mind having as a friend. These aren't gloomy kids seeking pity, or pitying themselves (not all the time, but everyone does that now and then). These are kids trying to enjoy life, to make it as normal as possible, which means getting frustrated with people who treat them like little saints. Despite its dances with death, The Fault in Our Stars has a rebellious joy for life, dancing in the face of the universe.