Have you heard about The Fault in Our Stars? The novel about teenagers with cancer that has taken the world by storm? The latest young adult offering to appeal to teenagers and adults alike? The book that touches the heart and makes people weep openly?
No? You haven’t? Well, there are only two possible explanations for your ignorance: 1) You don’t know any teenage girls; or 2) You pay absolutely 100% zero attention to any form of pop culture. Otherwise, this cultural phenomenon has been unavoidable of late. The current ubiquity is primarily due to the fact that the book was recently made into a movie. A movie that just hit theatres in the States and is shortly to debut here in the UK.
Given that I am someone who pays 100% too much attention to pop culture in all its forms, I was aware of the book. I hadn’t been really tempted to read it given that recommendations were generally along these lines:
“It will make you ugly cry so hard!”
“It’s the most tragic story ever!”
“It will absolutely destroy your soul and send you spiraling into an intense depression wherein you question your very existence and the unmitigated cruelty of the universe. You’ll emerge from isolation six weeks later with 30 pounds of OMGWHYISLIFETHEWORST weight and a regrettable self-administered haircut, but a deeper understanding of your inner self and the beauty of humanity! You just have to read it!”
Hmmmmm, not really that tempting, actually.
But then the movie was coming out, and I have this thing where if I think there’s any chance I might see a movie which is based on a book, I feel like I have to make an effort to read that book first. So I bought a copy at the airport before departing for Greece. I figured even if it made me ugly cry, at least I’d only be doing it in front of my parents, and surely a Mediterranean holiday was the perfect antidote to any existential, depressive crises.
Turns out it’s a pretty fast read (not that surprising I guess, given that it’s a YA book), so I had finished it by the next morning. And, well, I have Thoughts. With a capital T.
To put it simply: I am not on board the Fault in Our Stars train. Also, I might be dead inside.
Okay, it’s gonna get a little spoilery from here on out, people. Sooooo, this serves as your SPOILER ALERT! Consider yourself warned: if you’re planning to read the book or see the movie, you might want to skip out at this point.
Are you still here? Alright, well you were warned. Soooooo, for those few who have not read the book, don’t care about being spoiled and are still reading, here’s some general plot info before I launch into things.
Main character who is also the narrator: Hazel Grace Lancaster, age 16
Her affliction: Terminal thyroid cancer which has spread to her lungs; perpetually burdened with oxygen tank
Other main character who is not the narrator: Augustus Waters (aka Gus), age 17
His affliction: Amputated leg from osteosarcoma, fear of oblivion; currently in remission
The very basic plot: Hazel meets Gus. Gus loves Hazel. Hazel is hesitant, but eventually she returns Gus’s love. Love love love. LOVE.
Things that complicate the very basic plot: CANCER. DEATH. The difficulty of embracing true love in the face of said CANCER and DEATH. Parents struggling to deal with the sickness and inevitable death of a child. Children struggling to deal with the guilt and worry over subjecting their parents to crippling grief. The desire to be defined beyond one’s illness and the longing to leave something/anything behind and thus to be remembered, to not fade into oblivion.
So what’s my beef with this heartbreaking love story, you ask? It boils down to two main problems:
1) I dislike emotionally manipulative novels
2) I dislike Gus.
Let me explain.
I dislike emotionally manipulative novels. Okay, this may be painting with too wide a brush. I suppose on some level all novels are emotionally manipulative in that they are centered around fictional characters in whom we invest our time and energy, and to whom we therefore have varied emotional responses. Fine, fair enough. What I dislike about TFIOS is not that it’s a sad story, but that it’s a sad story that feels the need to go beyond being a Sad Story to become a Super Depressing Overwrought Story That Depicts the Harsh Reality of the World While Simultaneously Illuminating the Beauty of Humanity. It’s the type of book that is straining to be earnest and deep and ends up being melodramatic and unbelievable.
It’s a tricky thing to define, but I suppose it comes down to whether or not you can see the seams of the story. It’s not that I didn’t care for Hazel and Gus or understand the emotional and physical pain of their story. It was that I felt like I could see the gears moving behind the scenes; I was being beaten over the head with the Importance of Their Story. The story felt more like a carefully worked strategy to produce human tears than a natural, realistic story about what it’s like to be a teenager in love who happens to have cancer.
TFIOS is not the first of its kind. There are plenty of other emotionally manipulative books that have come before it. These books usually contain a twist that helps to propel the story from just very sad to woefully horrible. The most egregious example of this Surprise Twist to Make What was Already a Really Sad Depressing Story Even More Soul-Crushing and Horrible is without a doubt My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. That book is an abomination. I cannot speak of it without having a physical reaction. It induces a flames-on-the-side-of-my-face kind of rage in me.*
There were bigger problems with MSK throughout than there are in TFIOS, but the same feeling of cheap, emotional manipulation was there at the end.
Suffice it to say, reading a book in which the main character has terminal cancer is never going to be a picnic and that’s fine. But then there’s the “twist” – a word I use in the loosest sense as I could see it coming from about page 2 (I will admit, this may be due to the fact that it is a YA book) – a twist that took things over the edge from Sad Story to well…see above.
In reading TFIOS, I could see how the progression of the story – twist included – served to develop the characters of Hazel and Gus, both within their relationship and as individuals. I think within a novel that felt more true-to-life and realistic (more on this below in my dislike of Gus section), I would have felt things more deeply. As it was, the same feeling of manipulation that I felt so vividly in My Sister’s Keeper was there again. It produced less white hot this time around, but it did produce a kind of sad disappointment, particularly given the target audience for TFIOS: teenage girls. I could see how of course TFIOS would produce weeping and gnashing of teeth in teenage girls. Of course! Because the story is about such a beautiful romance with such a beautiful guy; because that guy is so dreamy and cool and wonderful and funny and he loves Hazel so much and he’ll do anything for her and oh right, he is completely 100% unrealistic.
Which brings me to my other main complaint against the book: I dislike Gus.
Now I don’t out and out hate Gus. My biggest problem with him is that he just is too good to be true. Literally. He is not a realistic character. He’s the embodiment of every bookish/intelligent/sensitve teenage girl’s dream. He’s good-looking! Smart! Funny! Witty! Sarcastic! Generous! Well-spoken! He finds equal pleasure in video games and books; he tells the girl he likes that she’s beautiful and that he loves her without embarrassment or hesitation; he supports his friends through incredibly difficult situations; he respects and loves his parents; he sticks with people even when he gets nothing out of it; he does everything in his power to deliver the one thing that his true love wants more than anything; etc. etc. etc.
I’m not saying that teenage boys cannot be decent human beings or display any of the above characteristics. I’m saying the likelihood of finding a teenage boy who is that amazing ALLTHETIMEALWAYS is so unbelievably unreal that it made Gus into a caricature.
And while he is undoubtedly supposed to be awesome, there are parts of Gus’s character that I actually find pretty distasteful. For example: when Hazel says she doesn’t want to get involved for fear of causing him future grief, he pursues her relentlessly anyways and it’s supposed to come across as romantic. More like pushy and selfish, if you ask me. Or when he explains how he stuck with his late [Yes, as in deceased. This is a cancer book, remember?] girlfriend even though he wasn’t really into her anymore, it’s supposed to seem wonderfully noble given that she had a personality-altering brain tumor. But in telling that tale to Hazel, he just came across as arrogant.
So I find it upsetting that teenage girls are reading this book and mooning over this completely unattainable perfect cancer-stricken soulful hunk of a teen. If Gus had some more obvious flaws, then I might very well be Team Gus! I’ve tried to throw myself back in time and consider if Teenage Susanna would have swooned for Gus. I’d like to think that at even as a teenager I would have found his too-good-to-be-true-ness a bit much. But maybe not; maybe I would have fallen for the fallacy and spent several years hoping to meet a super cool guy with a fatal disease.
Interestingly, after I had already written a good chunk of this post, I came across an article entitled, “He’s Perfect, He’s Awful: The Case Against The Fault in Our Stars’ Gus Waters” on one of my favorite pop culture blogs. The author is careful to stipulate that he is writing about Movie Gus, but from what I read, he seems pretty much the same as Book Gus. And all the author’s objections about Gus boil down to pretty much the same problems I’ve got with him. So really, I should have just linked to that article to begin with because it is written by a professional.
Anyways, this post is already far too long. So I’ll try to wrap this up. Even with all my complaints above, I would recommend the book to others, and I’ll definitely see the movie at some point (maybe not in the theatres…) and I will surely sob my eyes out when I do. There are parts of the book outside of the central romance that I found wonderfully moving and authentic. Like the way Hazel’s parents deal with the fact that they will inevitably outlive their daughter, or the feeling of helplessness that goes along with a serious illness, especially as the suffering becomes more and more intense. Despite some of the things I’ve said above, I do think John Green is a gifted writer, and I would check out some of his other books…as long as they don’t feature terminal illness as a central plot point.
The good parts, though they may be secondary, make the book worth reading. It’s just a shame that they come hand-in-hand with the melodrama and overly-perfect Gus.
Oh, and kids? I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s never in good taste to make out in the Anne Frank house.
But what do I know? I’m dead inside.
*It should be noted that I read MSK because Rachel loved it and got really excited when they were making it into a movie. She wanted us to go see it together, and she wanted me to read the book because she loved it so much. It is one of the few things on which I have taken such an absolutely opposite view to her. And to be clear, if I could save Rachel’s life by giving her an organ or donating my blood or something, I would do it in a heartbeat because I love her very much. So my problem with MSK is not with the sisters’ relationship which is loving and sacrificial, genuine and realistic. My problem is with EVERYTHING ELSE. Ugh.