There’s so much of everything in this book… Photo: Clare Cannon
If you see blotchy-faced teenagers on the street this week they will have emerged from an early screening of the young adult movie of the year, The Fault in Our Stars. Based on the novel of the same name by John Green, #TFIOS is a recent take on the star-crossed lovers theme involving two young cancer sufferers who refuse to let illness define their lives. It has been a New York Times best-seller for 124 consecutive weeks, and the trailer for the movie has been viewed over 20 million times. (Note: the trailer includes the beginning of a bedroom scene.)
Green’s fierce following of devoted teens grew thanks to his three previous successful novels and the popular YouTube channel vlogbrothers which he co-created with his brother Hank. Green is passionate about inspiring intellectual curiosity in teens and sees reading in particular as a way of teaching humanity, empathy and communications skills; as a way of teaching teens to live. In both ventures Green has achieved the one thing teens value most: he made them care. And beyond that, once the emotion subsides, teens are finding seeds he’s planted which help them ponder the meaning of life, the purpose of suffering and the essence of true love.
Possibly the main reason teens (especially female teens) are so fascinated by TFIOS is its romance. When Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters meet in a cancer support group, they feel the first stirrings of love. Most girls find it encouraging that even though “beautiful” Hazel has a puffy steroid face and a nasal cannula, easy-on-the-eyes Gus is sweetly devoted to her from the moment he sees her.
But although looks play a critical part in their relationship, the two are attracted by other aspects as well. Hazel is impressed that Gus’ cancer story ends by focusing on someone else. Gus is impressed that Hazel’s main hobby is reading. In fact, they learn most about each other when they exchange favourite books, and dissect them in a way that would make any book club proud.
Gus’ friend Isaac has love troubles of his own, but he provides one of the best definitions of love to be found in contemporary young adult literature. When it is suggested that sometimes people don’t understand the promises they are making when they make them, he exclaims, “But you keep the promise anyway. That’s what love is.” (61)
Hazel doesn’t want to kiss Gus unless she’s sure that she loves him. It doesn’t seem to have surprised readers that on the very same day she realises this, they not only kiss but make it (safely) all the way round to home base. I suppose this is sensible if you consider, as John Green and his characters do, that sex is something you should do before you die, provided you find someone special to do it with. Dying sooner rather than later means you have to move things along.
Teens also engage with the book’s soul-searching about the meaning of life and what makes it worthwhile, and are intrigued by the little bit of philosophy that characters explore. Soon after seeing each other for the first time Gus confronts Hazel (and everyone else at support group) with his “fear of oblivion”. Hazel tells him to ignore it, as everyone else does, because nothing and no one lives forever. Hazel’s own favourite book ends in the middle of a sentence, “like life”. And when this fictional book’s author, Peter Van Houten, asks in a letter to Gus whether “there is a point to it all”, he concludes, “I fear there is not, my friend.” (68)
Deep down, neither Hazel nor Gus seem happy with Van Houten’s explanation, perhaps because they have found something that transcends it. Gus voices his discovery:
I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you. (153)
Existential meaning for cancer sufferers is inevitably bound up with the conundrum of why sickness, suffering and grief exist in the world. Hazel keeps people at arm’s length because she believes herself to be a grenade, ready to explode at any time and take down those around her. Only gradually does she allow Gus to convince her that love is worth the suffering it exposes one to. (176)
In describing the nature of this suffering Green is determined to go beyond the stereotype of the “heroic cancer sufferer” who never complains or stops smiling. Instead he shows a teenager’s humiliation at having his girlfriend find him in a pool of his own making, or with his gastrostomy tube dislodged and infected. This teen hates himself, and previous avowals of love notwithstanding, just wants to die. (245) Hazel gives this problem philosophical expression:
…[R]eally, the problem is not suffering itself or oblivion itself but the depraved meaninglessness of these things, the absolutely inhuman nihilism of suffering. I thought of my dad telling me that the universe wants to be noticed. But what we want is to be noticed by the universe, to have the universe give a shit what happens to us—not the collective idea of sentient life but each of us, as individuals. (281)
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Catholicism gets a look in at this point. Alcoholic author Peter Van Houten tells Hazel of a six-year-old Italian candidate for sainthood, Antonietta Meo, who is believed to have told her father “Pain is like fabric: The stronger it is, the more it’s worth.” Hazel tells Van Houten that’s BS, but he counters, “don’t you wish it were true!” (284)
This brings us to another theme that resonates with teens: cynicism toward religion and Christianity in particular. (Green is Episcopalian, so it would seem he’s playing devil’s advocate, something he’s good at.)
The support group takes place in the basement of an Episcopalian church which is shaped like a cross. They sit in the middle of the cross, where the heart of Jesus would have been. The leader tells them that they, as young cancer survivors, are sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart. What does one find in Christ’s very sacred heart? A bunch of teens who want to live but who are instead dying of cancer.
Gus’ parents fuel their faith with encouragements, small phrases planted upon flat surfaces around their home as reminders to think well of the world. “True Love is Born from Hard Times”, “Family is Forever”, and Hazel’s favourite, “Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy?” (For the record, Hazel says:
This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate. (35)
The purpose of both the support group and the encouragement forms of faith is clear: they’re supposed to make you feel better. And perhaps they work, to an extent: Hazel meets Gus at support group after all, and Gus tells his dad he really does appreciate the encouragements but can’t admit it because he’s a teenager. Of course, if they don’t make you feel better, they’ve failed and you have every right to belittle them. Who wouldn’t?
Beyond this, Gus confesses his belief in Something with a capital S after death. He believes that humans have souls, and he believes in the conservation of souls. Hazel, though impressed with this idea, can’t quite bring herself to believe they’ll be together again after they die. While these admissions do not make an airtight case for the afterlife, at least they don’t rule out the possibility.
Family is one of the strongest themes in the book. Unlike much teen fiction, both Hazel and Gus have devoted parents who actually behave like parents. They want their children to experience the best of life but in an ordinary way, centred on people rather than possessions or achievements. And they have boundaries. Gus’ dad won’t let them watch a movie together in the basement; Hazel isn’t allowed to check her phone during dinner and is reprimanded for rarely being home in the evenings. Both sets of parents suffer seeing their children suffer, and both are ready to hold them when things are hard. And, best of all, the respect and devotion is mutual: both teens want their parents to have a life outside of being a cancer parent, and want their parents’ love for each other to continue strong after their children die.
Perhaps the most appealing feature of Green’s writing for teenagers is the conversational style seasoned with humour, sarcasm, emotional sincerity and grit. Though this is a book about two terminally ill teenagers, Green has readers laughing about Gus’ disastrous driving with his prosthetic leg, the politically incorrect jokes in honour of a kid who’s just lost his sight, and a sudden obsession with scrambled eggs as a breakfast-only food.
But before you expect Wodehouse know that Green is not shy of crude conversation and profanity, both of which pop up frequently, even at the most inappropriate moments. His most winning feature for teens is probably the ability to craft words so that they “bring on the feels” (stir up emotion), resulting in the plethora of quotable quotes from this and his other books, the most famous of which is, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” (125)
There’s so much of everything in this book. But what’s most important is where it leaves the teens who read it.
The story appeals to young people because it speaks to them about things that matter. But, although it asks good questions, it doesn’t make much progress along the path to answering them and is particularly sceptical about religious answers. It reflects conventional attitudes to sex—the sole condition, that “you really love each other”, is not too far from where Twilight left us—and spares us only some of the detail.
Nevertheless, most teens have read it and intend to see the movie. That being the case, there is an opportunity to direct their final glance toward the most worthwhile aspects and leave the rest behind. The discussion starters in the following SlideShare are intended to that process, but, with or without them, TFIOS is a conversation that needs to be had.
Clare Cannon is the editor of www.GoodReadingGuide.com