Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I bet, after my manifesto last week, you didn't expect me to review a book that I, at least, would call YA literary fiction. Well, I that's what I'm doing. I read literary fiction. I read anything: historical, romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, adventure, biographies, cookbooks...I've actually followed people because I hadn't finished reading their shirts.

I like stories about the highs and lows of human life, wherever that is. I don't like this weird postmodern push in literary fiction to write a story without a "threshold," a moment where the protagonist either chooses something or is in a situation he/she can't come back from, or an epiphany, where this moment in a protagonist's life matters for some reason. Some stories now are trying to be boring - their word, actually, not mine. They're trying to present, in beautiful language, a slice of a character's life where nothing happens. The person does and thinks what he/she always does or thinks. No change. No reason for this part of the character's life to be immortalized in fiction. I want to read things and feel like there's a point to it, not that I just spent the last hour of my life reading a piece that gave me nothing, as a reader, and felt more like the writer showing off how well he/she can write. The worst, for me, is when it's clear the writer doesn't care what the reader wants in a story. Two people create a work of fiction: the writer and the reader. I think writers have a responsibility to honor the reader with their work.

John Green, I think, does this. His writing is beautiful. Really, A+ on lovely language. The voice of his main character in The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel, is very interesting to read and sounds like a defined, real person. If nothing else, read this book to learn how to use language like a pro. Descriptions are elegantly written without exhausting words and Green manages to handle talking about kids with cancer beautifully.

That was another thing I liked about this book. It doesn't feel too cliche. I think one of the reasons I list to sci-fi/fantasy writing is because a writer can easily write about death and dying and other really weighty issues without sounding sappy or angry. The story can be about the characters more than the issue without feeling like it needs to pay homage to some overruling message. (I like messages, and I think they should be there, but I think they should be second to the story and characters.) Green, in this novel, writes a story about teens dying of cancer without making them sound like saints, like some do, and he also doesn't swing too far to the other side, describing death in the most graphic terms possible to deliberately avoid the sappy, saintly cancer story. Green does a good job showing the situation from the perspective of people who are trying to come to terms with dying young and potentially unremembered.

The book is charming because the characters feel real and their reactions to death feel real, not overly emotional or fictionalized. However, I don't think this book is perfect. The characters Hazel and Augustus don't feel like teenagers. They feel too intelligent, to philosophical, too mature to be teenagers. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I kept seeing them as young adults in my mind and didn't exactly feel the urgency of teens sick with cancer, and I didn't sense the importance of the kind of things that would be important to teens. On the other hand, I enjoyed reading the characters and thought they were interesting. I can buy two very smart teens, though it may be pushing it that these two very smart teens found each other so easily. And the romance was so smooth. It felt forced, just a little.

The thing I didn't like about the book (really, the only thing) was that I felt like a message was getting pushed on me. I've already said I don't like it when a story is all about the message, and I don't think Green is writing a philosophy on dying and remembering the dead disguised as a YA novel. However, I could take a pen and circle on the page places where I can see Green's ideas coming out. It felt in some ways like Green was using his characters, his very smart teenaged characters, to say what he wanted to say, not necessarily what they would say in the situation. It's usually gracefully done, but the story isn't as "first place" as I would have liked it to be. I think the message would come out even if these characters weren't sitting around, playing video games and talking about very deep things all the time.

I know. The characters are concerned with death and dying. They are more likely to think about matters like this than the average teen. But still. Something feels a little false in this, a little too authorial. Just a little. Green is a master composer, crafting language into music that can carry you away to the place he wants to take you. There's a lot to be said, good things, about this book. I just don't like feeling preached to by my literature.

And now I'm going to get roasted for saying something negative about this book. I know a lot of people love it, and there's a lot to love. Read it. It's good. But I don't give books Brownie Points because they are sad. Some books are terrible but end in a death that is so dripping with emotion the readers sob and think that means the novel was well-written. I don't. In fact, I've never cried reading a book. Could be a cold heart, or maybe an analytic mind. Green's book is well-written, but it didn't give me what I was looking for, not everything. So I wrote for you my honest opinion. Take it as you will. But read the book. It's good writing.

Maybe read it over Thanksgiving. Or read whatever you like. Just have a happy holiday, and eat way more than you should. It's the American way.

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