Friday, September 05, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, September 05, 2014 5 comments
In the lead up to a new school year beginning, I've gotten out of the blogging habit, sadly. Today I thought I'd "get back in the saddle" so to speak with a quick review of a book everyone's been talking about this summer.

Fan art from Tumblr
What surprised me most about John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is the light touch gallows humor and wry narrative voice. This book had me laughing far more often than I'd expected for an ostensibly weepy kind of story. That was a big plus.

I also loved that Green shows how living with a life threatening illness influences personality in a way that struck me as wise and insightful: the ever-present threat of death would quite reasonably make a kid into an "old soul" who tries to think big thoughts and be someone special in a very condensed lifetime. He even does a good job of showing the tremendous tedium of watching someone die.

Where I wasn't as deeply gripped was the romance part of the story. There's an extent to which Hazel is trying to protect her own heart and Gus's. But when she does decide to love, I didn't quite feel the shift as much as I'd hoped. It remained still a very intellectual kind of love.

The story's most fascinating character was, to my mind, the antagonist Peter Van Houten, a misanthropic alcoholic author whose first novel is a favorite of the teen characters. This once eloquent, wise soul has become wonderfully horrid in a way only truly broken people can be. His response to personal loss is what Hazel most fears her illness will incite in others (she once refers to herself as a grenade that will explode, leaving casualties).  Van Houten's bad behavior has surprising consequences; it incites Hazel to at last show she has developed a backbone and a strong voice in the midst of loss.

Whether Van Houten ultimately leaves behind his wallowing and changes for the better remains an open question, like the unwritten sequel to An Imperial Affliction. Van Houten either is or isn't redeemable. Hazel and Gus ignite change in him or don't. It's the kind of ending that, like suffering, exposes rather than changes one's views of human brokenness.

As a window into a very, very underrepresented minority in literature--disability and illness are pushed to the margins even more than race or poverty--I'd recommend this book. I finished with a tremendous appreciation for my health and a renewed sense that we need to do more as a culture to love those with physical differences, whether chronic or acute.

What are your thoughts about this best-seller? If you haven't picked it up, would you? What have you been reading lately?

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for your review. I haven't read this book, but I've been thinking about it.

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    1. I'd liked his other books, but was somewhat slow to get around to this one, in part because it had a lot of hype. In this case, a fair amount is deserved--it's quite an unusual story for YA really.

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  2. I read it earlier this summer and was blown away by it. By far my fav YA contemporary! And I loved the humor in it, too.

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    1. I wish I'd read it sooner, mostly because it's been so widely reviewed I knew the basic plot outline before I read it. So the supposed surprises weren't surprising, though some of his approach really was. That was a refreshing discovery.

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  3. Yes Van Houten was wonderfully horrid! I felt that was one of the hardest things Hazel had to face: him letting her down. But I think it perpared her for what was coming. I plan to read this one again sometime.

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