Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsBeautiful. Intense. Heart-rending; heart-warming.

These are just a few of the things left floating around in my story-scarred brain after completing The Fault in Our Stars. I thought it was going to be one type of book, but it turned out to be something else entirely. Within the first chapter or two I had made a whole list of assumptions about where the story was going to lead me, only to have those turned upside down by the end of the book.

I knew it was going to be good - a whole raft of customer and bookseller recommendations couldn’t dispute that - but I didn’t expect it to be this good. I didn’t expect the writing to blow me away. I didn’t expect it to be so full of world-changing thoughts and wise words. I didn’t expect it to be so immensely beautiful, and now I regret rushing through it in my desperation to finish the story, to find out how it ends; to experience all the emotions in one intense day. How does he do it? The conclusion I have swiftly reached is that there’s no better role model for the world than a book written by John Green.

The story is this: Hazel has cancer. She lives with it and it lives with her. Depression, she says, is not a side effect of cancer, it is a side effect of death; it is a side effect of being consumed by your own, out-of-control cells. But, worried about depression, Hazel’s mother sends Hazel, much to her disgust, out into the world to attend a teen cancer support group. And so Hazel meets Augustus, which is, of course, the real beginning of this story.

Augustus is not all that he might be cracked up to be, given the premise of this story. He is not perfect. He has ideals that, as far as Hazel can see, neither he nor she can live up to, and it is heart-rending to see him fall apart in their pursuit. Hazel, in contrast, has a very simple set of requests for life, only to discover that life can offer a her lot more than she thought possible. I’m not going to lie: only the most hard-hearted and callous reader will be able to complete The Fault in Our Stars without shedding a few - or a bucketful - of tears. It is just that powerful.

The title references a Shakespearean quote that Green himself refers to about half way through the book: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” The character is talking about ‘hamartia’, the idea that every hero has a fatal flaw, some unconscious weakness that reveals itself at the worst possible moment, creating their downfall. It’s a concept that crops up again and again in literature, and is particularly resonant in Greek tragedy. Thus, we cannot blame the stars for what goes wrong in our lives, but only ourselves. Green seems to turn this around in his title - it’s not, after all, called ‘Not the Fault in Our Stars’, but ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. Does this mean he disagrees with the concept of hamartia? Or is it simply that the overriding fault in his characters' lives - cancer - is not of their own making? My mind flip-flops through a whole series of contradictions and ideas while I think about this - hamartia versus stars, stars versus hamartia. Because where cancer is concerned, while it’s not our fault, it is something our bodies do to themselves without our choice, which is much how hamartia works. So perhaps cancer isn’t a fault in our stars, but in ourselves. Either way, hamartia is definitely something Green gets me thinking about. Are we to blame for the mistakes we make, or are they simple written in our stars?

Another theme riding through the story is the idea of how we as humans commemorate or remember people after their deaths. This is brought to the reader most directly through another Shakespeare quote, this time from the fifty-fifth sonnet. “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; / But you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.” The character  then points out that despite the sentiment of this verse, the fact that it exists to commemorate a particular death, today we actually know virtually nothing about the person for whom it was written. The idea of living on after we die, of wanting to make our mark on the world, consumes Augustus much as it does many people. Often, the need to achieve things with our lives, whether to prove that our lives have not been wasted, or whether to somehow make sure we won’t be forgotten after we’ve gone, spurs us on. Peter, who writes these lines in The Fault in Our Stars, tells us that we cannot immortalise the lost by writing about them. Ironically, this is exactly what he has tried to do and, I suppose, it is what Hazel is doing too. But, Hazel reminds us, Nothing gold can stay, wrote Robert Frost.

Overall, what I take away from this book is that love is transformative. It is transformative in every way imaginable, whether that is love for a lover or for a child. But death and loss, and the fear of dying are transformative too. It is a sad story, but it is an uplifting one too. It feels true, and it leaves me feeling wistful, and mindful, and with heartache.

“It seemed to me that I had already seen everything pure and gold in the world,” Hazel writes. “And I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn’t get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. So dawn goes down to day, the poet wrote. Nothing gold can stay.”

It leaves me with a wish to be able to write as John Green writes. To be able to evoke beauty. To be able to find that essence of the human soul.

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