There’s a reason I’ve never reviewed a John Green book before: I just can’t make up my mind about him. The legions of his followers praise him for depicting teenagers with a stark reality and cunning insight, but I’ve yet to meet a young adult who is capable of consistently churning out the studied, cynical soliloquies in which Green’s characters are so fond to indulge. Every word is carefully chosen for maximum impact in such a self-conscious manner that I never once forget that I am reading the work of someone who wants his writing to Be Meaningful! and Combat Stereotypes! and generally unveil the hidden existentialist hipster that supposedly lurks within each hormone-riddled body.
While I’ve yet to read his seminal book Looking for Alaska, thus making The Fault in Our Stars my introduction to his more serious side, I truly enjoyed his more lighthearted works An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns. Yet, each book (Paper Towns particularly) had something that prevented me from fully embracing it. Yes, the protagonist of each displayed all of the improbable insight into verbal brilliance that seems to characterize his work, but in the context of stories that weren’t meant to be taken too seriously, it was easy to forgive this tendency. To be honest, I truly liked Colin and Quentin as narrators; it was the females (often described as Manic Pixie types) that left me cold, and I realize that was the point. Still, as a reader that places such a premium on engagement with characters, having the protagonists fixate on such flawed women for the majority of the story prevented me from truly immersing myself in Colin’s and Quentin’s struggles, however much I happened to like them.
The Fault in Our Stars, while providing its humorous moments, is a departure from the funny/quirky vibe of the aforementioned books, and a welcome addition to the young adult genre as it deals with an issue that many people shy away from. I (thankfully) have little personal experience with anyone undergoing cancer treatment, but I suspect that most will find Green’s book a welcome depiction of both the quiet dignity and inevitable indignities that attend chronic illness. For those who feel that my somewhat tempered reaction to this book relates to its plot, let me disavow you of that notion off the bat. There is only one way that this book could have, should have, and thankfully did journey. Green didn’t pull the punches, and even my obsessive need for happily-ever-after resolutions was not offended by Green’s choices.
This is Green’s first venture into female narrative voice, and I think he did a good job, particularly as Hazel could have been much more given to melodramatic bouts of self-pity. Yet her attitude is believably frustrated, at times defeated, but never in a way that feels unjustified. Augustus is ultimately a wonderful counterpart to Hazel’s muted persona, though it took me a while to warm up to him. Green’s penchant for middle-age dialogue funneled through teenage voices has never been more apparent, yet the serious tone of the story makes Hazel and Augustus come across as pretentious rather than precocious. Surely, Green has a gift with words, and the discussions between these two characters never lacked for beauty in their substance, yet they were never believable, and so once again I felt myself distanced from Hazel and Augustus rather than absorbed.
I’m not prepared to declare this one of the greatest novels ever written, as seems to be the trend on Goodreads at the moment. I will say that The Fault in Our Stars, while perhaps not the most nuanced novel of the year, will likely be one of the best in its genre nonetheless as the year comes to a close.