First, a few confessions: I finished this book two weeks ago, and writing a review has proven especially difficult because I keep getting sidetracked by Other John Green Stuff. The internet in general and youtube in particular is awash with John and his brother Hank Green, and almost all of it is charming and super fun. Second confession: I seriously love John Green. Not in a leave-your-wife-and-children-and-run-away-with-me way, but in an I-could-listen-to-you-talk-about-anything way. In fact, I have–thanks to the miracle or curse that is youtube, you, too, can listen to John discuss his thoughts on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and why conjoined twins can use the carpool lane for thirteen minutes while watching a screen-capture of his elaborate video game soccer club play various rivals, link not included because I’d rather point you toward his more intellectual work first.
And yes, I can call him John: “Perhaps you’re not familiar with the Rule of Twitter Following which I just made up, whereby you can call anyone you follow on Twitter by their first name. See also my acquaintances Barack, Beyonce, and Ellen.” (For your viewing pleasure: Vlogbrothers: Are Poor Countries Doomed?)
I first became acquainted with this exceptional human being before taking a trip to Europe last summer when I googled “world history crash course” and found with delight that youtube has a channel called Crash Course and that channel has a playlist called World History full of 10 – 15 minute episodes of surprisingly engaging internet lectures by a charismatic and eloquent nerd named John! Hooray! And the channel (and its counterpart, Crash Course US History) features not only fascinating historical knowledge, but thoughtful perspective, and asks (but doesn’t necessarily answer) questions like why are we studying history? what lessons should we learn? in what ways does our historical past influence our present? (FYVP: CCWH #2: Indus Valley Civilization.) It reminds us that all history comes from a certain perspective, and we not only need to be mindful of that perspective, but also consider the perspectives that don’t have a historical voice because they were silenced. (FYVP: CCUSH #1: The Black Legend, Native Americans, and Spaniards.)
I watched so many of these impressive history videos that I started to wonder how many people knew about them and whether this John Green person had a wikipedia page. He does, and I was surprised to learn that teaching history is neither the thing that made him famous nor the thing for which he’s best known.
He’s an award-winning young adult novelist. He and his brother Hank became internet celebrities during a project called Brotherhood 2.0 during which they stopped using text-based communication for all of 2007 and conversed instead through video blogs that were publicly posted. (FYVP: Twenty Essential Vlogbrothers Videos. Also available is The Brotherhood 2.0 Playlist in order, but please note that the list is 200 videos long and you will not be able to watch the entire thing in fewer than 12 hours, so it’s not the best place to start. And, like most of our favorite episodic entertainment, parts of “season one” require some enduring before they find their stride.) The rousing success and popularity of the project continues on their channel VlogBrothers, wherein John and Hank post a few times a week about whatever they like, from politics (Syria in Five Minutes) to Harry Potter (Accio Deathly Hallows) to animal sex (Giant Squids of Love). Their largely-teenaged fan base call themselves Nerdfighters and have a vast internet community and participate in humanitarian fundraising and loan projects to “increase awesome and decrease suck,” a worthy and ambitious goal that includes fighting poverty and illiteracy, supporting entrepreneurs and students, paying for pet surgery, and rallying around the sick or bullied. Crash Course is something of a spin-off channel, and offers more than just history lessons–the Green brothers teach psychology, chemistry, literature, biology, and ecology (hosted by Hank, which I find particularly fascinating). To celebrate and discuss the influence of youtube, John and Hank created VidCon. Among other things.
Seriously, I could go on, but instead I’m going to use celebrity to illustrate their effect. Here’s Benedict Cumberbatch doing the Nerdfighter sign:
And here’s Matt Smith:
In short, these are our kinda people, but with more heart and less snark.
Which brings me, finally, to the review itself. The Fault in Our Stars is about two teenagers with cancer who develop somewhat different outlooks on life: Augustus, who longs for a life of heroism and greatness, and Hazel, the narrator, who takes comfort in the fact that even “great” lives are eventually forgotten. I was prepared to love TFiOS based on loyalty to John Green alone, but the book is, not surprisingly, perfectly lovely.
Which is not to say perfect. For one thing, I am a little frustrated with the way Hazel tends to end her statements with question marks or “or whatever”, the way oh-so-many young women tend to do. It makes me want to grab them and say, “Come on, girl! Put some oomph and finality into it! Your ideas are legitimate!” Of course I can forgive Hazel for this, but it does make me worry that girls who read this book may find it an endearing quality and start imitating it, subtly undermining themselves.
But that’s about where my criticism ends. In fact, I’d like to address other criticisms I’ve encountered:
1. Some people criticize that the characters or dialog don’t seem realistic, or that simply having cancer doesn’t make someone wiser or more thoughtful. But The Fault in Our Stars comes from a place of experience and research. John Green worked in a children’s cancer ward. He dedicated it to friend with a similar cancer to Hazel’s who died when she was sixteen. He’s spent a lot of time interacting with sick teenagers, and even more with well teenagers, and he knows better than most of us how kind and eloquent and awesome they can be. Also, having cancer presents people with an entirely different set of problems than those healthy people are used to, especially kids. While cancer does not make a kid inherently braver, or smarter, or more adult, it forces the kid to ask (and endeavor to answer) a lot of philosophical questions that most other kids don’t ponder for years. So in a way, it absolutely does make a kid wiser and more thoughtful.
2. Hazel is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or Augustus is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy. While Hazel and Augustus are both eloquent, intelligent, quirky, and pretty adorable, they’re absolutely human. This is easiest to see with Hazel, since she narrates for us and we’re privy to her less MPD and more teenager-y thoughts like being frustrated with her parents and pissed off at her cancerous lungs. Augustus becomes less idealized as the story goes on, first when he’s too excited or surprised to act the way he likes to present himself, and later when he’s too sick. The two stick together through undeniably difficult and unattractive times. They think of each other as regular people coping with irregular circumstances, and you should, too.
Make no mistake, John Green is well aware of the trope. He calls it the “MPDG lie” and says “it hurts both the observer and the observed.” (This is commentary on another of his books, Paper Towns, which I bought this weekend and am not allowed to start until I finish this review.)
3. Perhaps not a criticism, but a reaction I’ve noticed people have to this book is that it’s wicked depressing and/or will make the reader weep for days. I mean, precocious teenagers who fall in love under the shadow of impending tragedy? It sounds like exactly the kind of thing I usually avoid. But I’m here to tell you that, while it is sad and I did cry some, this book did not depress me in the least. In fact, as a depressive existentialist myself, I found it incredibly comforting and it even cheered me up. Because, even though, as Hazel says, there will come a time when “there will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you,” this story reminds us that there is worth in knowledge, and experiences, and especially in loving other people, even if those things are temporary.
I like what John Green wrote on the topic better than anything I could write myself:
It’s very difficult to understand just how small a part of the universe we are, and on some level, claiming that we can shape the universe is a little bit like the grain of sand on the beach that believes it can control the tides… Of course–and this is the miracle to me–none of this exempts us from trying to do good. We must still serve our fellow humans, and the idea of life itself, as best we can… I don’t find our relative insignificance disheartening at all: The main thing it tells me is that in a culture that worships celebrity and the purportedly extraordinary, ALL people are ordinary people. ALL people have the same responsibilities to themselves and to each other.
Maybe the universe cares nothing about us, but WE care about each other. And most encouragingly, we care not just about our friends and family but for the whole enterprise of life–we care about strangers and about humpback whales and, most beautifully of all, we care about the dead. We try to live our lives to honor theirs. That’s how we make our lives meaningful, and how we make their lives meaningful, too.
Let us also note that The Fault in Our Stars is majorly impacting people. I started this post with a google image search because I wanted to include something other than the cover art, which I figured you’d all seen by now. I discovered an overwhelming amount of fan art. Drawings, unofficial movie posters, word pictures, jewelry, manicures, even tattoos. This book is touching lives, whether the dialog is a little idealized or not, and I find that very telling.
Have I convinced you? Read this book. Still not sure? Okay, here’s my last-ditch effort: John Green reading chapter one.