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Taking Flight
John Green's The Fault in Our Stars
Erin Strybis

In many ways, Hazel Grace Lancaster is a typical sixteen-year-old: she loves hiding away in her room reading, has a mild obsession with reality television (ANTM—America’s Next Top Model—is her favorite), and has a penchant for sarcasm. But Hazel is anything but typical. She is incredibly smart, observant, witty, and often wise beyond her years. She also has experienced an uncommon amount of pain and continually fights to survive.

Hazel has cancer. “Thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-­settled satellite colony in my lungs,” (5) she explains each week at the support group she resentfully attends. “I went... for the same reason that I once allowed nurses with a mere eighteen months of graduate education to poison me with chemicals: to make (my parents) happy. There is only one thing (worse) in this world than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a child who bites it from cancer” (7–8). Hazel’s outlook is shaped by the knowledge that she is living on borrowed time, that sooner or later, the cancer living in her cells will be the cause of her demise. It is no wonder she feels depressed.

starsAnd yet—if you are wondering why to read a young adult novel about a girl who has cancer—it is because John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is not depressing. Quite the contrary: it is ­engaging and funny and entertaining. Moreover it is poignant, uplifting and one of the only books I read this past summer that I just could not put down. I laughed out loud and also shed some tears as I followed Green’s young characters as they wrestled with big issues of love, mortality, and wanting to matter. In many ways, it is a coming-of-age novel that takes place largely against the backdrop of hospital and home life.

It doesn’t really matter if you’re sixteen or sixty; The Fault in Our Stars is relevant across generations. As NPR’s reviewer Rachel Syme said, “Green writes books for young adults, but his voice is so compulsively readable that it defies categorization. He writes for youth, rather than to them, and the difference is palpable.” That is the reason this novel soars: Green’s characters are incredibly intelligent, vulnerable, and authentic, with a remarkable depth of personality that sets them apart from their contemporaries.

 Since being diagnosed with cancer at the age of thirteen, Hazel has missed out on so much of her childhood. Thanks to an experimental drug called Phalanxifor (which exists only in the novel), her cancer is in remission, but when readers first meet Hazel, she is still living vicariously through the pages of the novels she devours and the reality television she follows. Her mother, seeing this, says: “Hazel, you deserve a life.”

Hazel joins a support group to please her parents, but she despises going and attends as an observer rather than a participant, maintaining a safe distance from other members and avoiding any real emotional connections. Her closest acquaintance is Isaac, a fellow member with whom she trades exasperated sighs throughout each session. Then Isaac’s friend, the devastatingly handsome cancer survivor, Augustus Waters, shows up at group and Hazel is propelled to step outside of her comfort zone.

A former basketball star, seventeen-year-old Augustus had osteosarcoma, which resulted in the tragic loss of his leg. Now his cancer is in remission. Charming, clever, and totally enamored with Hazel, Augustus piques her attention with his smoldering gaze and insightful comments to the group. After talking with Augustus after support group ends, Hazel realizes she has a crush too: “I liked Augustus Waters. I really, really, really liked him... I liked that he took existentially fraught free throws. I liked that he was a tenured professor in the Department of Slightly Crooked Smiles with a dual appointment in the Department of Having a Voice That Made My Skin Feel More Like Skin” (31). Hazel feels alive.

They plan a date and further bond over Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. Written by a man named Peter Van Houten, the book is about a girl named Anna who has cancer. Van Houten’s portrayal of cancer is different than anything Hazel has read before and it resonates with her. Hazel can’t stop thinking about the book’s cliffhanger ending. As they discuss it, Hazel says: “That’s... what I like about the book in some ways. It portrays death truthfully. You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence. But I do—God, I really want to know what happens to everyone else. That’s what I asked (the author) in my letters” (67). Hazel has sent several letters to Van Houten about the characters that are left behind when Anna dies, but does not receive any answers. It seems that Hazel’s fixation with the ending of his novel might have something to do with her more deep-seated desire to know what life is like beyond cancer or after death. 

In a dramatic romantic gesture, Augustus decides to use his wish from “The Genies” (similar to the Make-a-Wish Foundation) to help Hazel fulfill her deepest wish—to get answers to her questions about An Imperial Affliction. Getting these answers, however, means traveling to Amsterdam to visit the one and only Peter Van Houten in his home.  On the plane to Amsterdam, Augustus makes a bold confession to Hazel: “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is not 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 returned to dust, and I know that the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you” (153).  It is an elegant, beautiful admission of love, and a statement that makes Hazel’s heart hurt with happiness. The rest of what happens on the journey, and to Hazel and Augustus, I will not disclose. You will have to pick up the book to find out.

What I will share is what stood out most to me in this novel: the remarkable coming together of two young kindred spirits. I was reminded of what it was like to be sixteen and for the first time to have someone recognize me the way I always wanted to be recognized, to go from feeling alone in the world to being so close you mean the world to someone.

One cannot read The Fault in Our Stars and not wonder what to make of the title, which John Green noted on his blog was inspired by Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2). Shakespeare says that it is not fate, but our own faults that doom us. Nevertheless so much of Hazel’s and Augustus’s personal narratives are prescribed by the fault in their bodies—the cancer they cannot control and do not deserve. They do not know what sort of future they will have, and if their diseases will return, but they live with the reminder of their own fragility every day. Unlike Shakespeare, Green argues that cancer is not his characters’ fault to claim at all but an incredibly unfortunate fate. What makes this novel so triumphant is that these young people refuse to let their cancer define them.

Hazel and Augustus lift each other up beyond their circumstances to embrace life. They choose to live loudly even though their days are numbered, but truth be told, each and every one of us lives with this uncertainty. We are all mortal, all fragile, all vulnerable. Their romance, their story is a celebration of claiming and enjoying life despite the “fault in our stars.” It is about ­stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, taking risks, and taking flight.

 

Erin Strybis is a Marketing Manager at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She lives and works in Chicago, where she enjoys running, reading, and spending time with family and friends.

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