The Fault in Our Stars is a quick read, but it is by no means an easy one. With a plot that centers around two terminally ill teenagers falling in love, how could it not tug at the heartstrings? By the time you reach the ending, you’ll be wishing the story of Hazel and Gus continued on indefinitely. Unfortunately, as one of the recurring mantras in this poignant tale informs us, the world is not a Wish-Granting factory.
Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters, 16- and 17-years old, respectively, meet at a cancer support group and immediately hit it off. Terminal illnesses aside, they’ve actually got a lot in common. Ah, young love.
Except it’s not really young love, because Hazel and Gus’ cancer-riddle lives come with tragically short expiration dates; Hazel’s portable oxygen tank (“Phillip”) and Augustus’ prosthetic leg serve as constant reminders of this inescapable fact. Hazel celebrates her half-birthdays because her lifespan feels longer when measured in months rather than years, and Gus engages in video games in order to play out his fantasy of dying a “heroic” death rather than one that is decidedly inglorious.
But the triumph of John Green’s writing is that, despite the dreary subject matter (or perhaps because of it), he succeeds in making this story deeply and unequivocally funny. It has been said that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and Green navigates that line like an expert tightrope walker. Hazel narrates in a voice both wise and snarky, using Random Capitalization to convey particularly maddening/meaningful concepts; she addresses the sentiment that her cancer will most likely define her existence after her death, wondering if people would think that “the only thing I’d ever done was Have Cancer.” Gus is cut from the same mold, winning Hazel over by (among other things) launching into a monologue about taking existentially fraught free-throws on the basketball court. (Happens to you all the time too, right?)
While Gus frets over the absurdity of “methodically tossing a spherical object through a toroidal object,” his partner in metaphysical ponderings scoffs at equally absurd social conventions that reflect—be it resignedly or comfortingly—our only ways of dealing with such indescribable tragedies such as cancer. And as Hazel scrolls through the Facebook page of a girl who Fought Heroically but Lost Her Battle with cancer, it is impossible not to feel keenly connected to these desperate attempts to create order out of a disorderly world, even as we realize how ridiculous it is to be posting platitudes on a dead girl’s Facebook wall.
In this sense, The Fault in Our Stars is as serious a novel as its one sentence summary would suggest. And in a twisted way, it is precisely the comic aspects of the story that make it so profound; Hazel and Gus making light of everything is a kind of defense mechanism that reveals their need to believe that there is, in fact, a Cosmic Importance to it all.
Augustus, more so than Hazel, is the one who subscribes to this belief. Though Hazel has long been resigned to the ordinariness of her life, Gus constantly aspires to do something classically heroic with his life. These visions of grandeur are accentuated within Gus as a result of his illness—think of it as a Napoleon complex of a sort. More specifically, both teenagers are (understandably) concerned with how they will be remembered after their deaths—a concept that is almost constantly on Gus’ and Hazel’s minds. Many of the book’s most emotionally resonant moments are encapsulated by the interactions between Hazel and her loving parents, offering Hazel—and us—a glimpse at the future Lancaster family without one of its key members.
John Green’s witty, insightful characters provide a glimpse not only at the lives of cancer patients, but also, in a larger sense, at the lives of those who (according to Augustus Waters) are “suffering from personhood”—that is, all of humankind. Time affects us all; the tragedy in this book is that Hazel and Augustus possess such a small slice of it. Or as one character puts it: “What a slut time is. She screws everybody.”
Hazel and Gus do get their chance to be together, Time Slut be damned. As for the rest of us, we’ve got our chronic cases of personhood to contend with.