Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How utterly unprecedented.

"You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are."
- John Green in The Fault In Our Stars

You'd think the last thing Blade and I would need right now would be to read a book about terminally ill cancer patients, but this weekend we found ourselves reading The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

(The above video was filmed the week the book was actually released, a little over a month ago. I get annoyed when authors and artists pretend they don't care what anyone thinks about their work because it's all about the process blah blah. I find that unbelievable. I like that John Green comes straight out and says to his readers, "I really hope you like what I made for you!")

The hero/narrator is a 16 year old girl who, because she's been so sick for so long, lives in a pretty small world -- her parents, her doctors, the one friend from school who still bothers to call her sometimes, and the kids at her ever-shrinking kids-with-cancer support group. She thinks it's best to keep her world small so that she devastates fewer people when she inevitably dies. The book is about whether it is possible or even desirable to protect other people by isolating yourself.

What keeps it from being too depressing or sappy is that the characters don't fit the mold for how we mythologize cancer patients, especially kids: They're not unspoiled innocents, and they're not angelic or stoic or especially brave. They don't have some mystical insight into The Meaning Of It All. They're just kids who happen to be very sick. They still get crushes, fight with their parents, play video games, and crack jokes.

John Green said this in an interview with NPR:
"All of the people I've known who were sick — young or old — were still funny. It's important to note or remember that people who are sick and people who are dying aren't dead. ... And so I've known a lot of young people who were very sick but also very, very funny, and often in dark, dark ways." 
The dialogue is tight, smart, and hilarious. One criticism I've read of the book is that "real teenagers aren't like that." That is, real teenagers don't read smart books or make witty comebacks.

This criticism falls flat to me, because it assumes that teenagers are all the same. I knew some shallow, boring kids in high school, but I also knew some quirky, brilliant, thoughtful kids. Just like there is no single kind of cancer patient, there is no single kind of teenager.

The other criticism that keeps popping up in amateur reviews is that young adults (to whom The Fault in Our Stars is actually marketed) aren't mature enough to catch on to the symbolism and the literary references.

Yes, the The Fault In Our Stars is full of nods to The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye (and maybe Finnegan's Wake?), but it would be enjoyable even if you didn't catch onto those references. 

Even so, remember that most people in America who are currently reading The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye -- and, for that matter, Crime and Punishment, The Odyssey, and Hamlet -- are high school kids.* They're being actively taught how to read well. Don't tell them what they can and can't understand.

*This is completely a guess on my part. But how old were you when you first read those books? I'd guess you were younger than 20 unless you are a particularly classy grown-up who somehow missed those books in high school English and yet have pursued them anyway.


  1. I pre-ordered it to get a John Green signed copy and LOVED IT! the part at the end where Augustus was referencing everyone's sickness as a result of seeing his amazing physical appearance had me laughing so hard. seriously, so good.

  2. Loved this post! You tell 'em, Alyssa. Teenagers can be brilliant and thoughtful and totally capable. I wonder why more people don't believe this. Maybe it's self-conscious projection?

    Anyway, I hope to read this book someday. Maybe during the summer. Thanks for the mini-review!

  3. Also, This.


  4. I read this post (when you wrote it? A long while ago, anyway.) and decided I needed to read the book. I finally read it this weekend, and I'm so glad I did. So thanks.