“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)
Okay, so I said I’d write about The Fault in Our Stars, and I will. I have no idea if what I say is going to make sense, but that’s never stopped me before. The Fault in Our Stars, for the two of you who don’t know, is the blockbuster young adult novel by John Green that has recently been made into a blockbuster movie. It is the biggest thing for teenage girls since the Twilight series, or maybe The Hunger Games. If you have a teenage girl, she has probably read it multiple times.
If I had known anything about it at all, I would probably have kept Lucy from reading it. But it was recommended and loaned to her by a girl whose mother I think of as quite protective, and all I was told was that it had some “mild language” in it. It sounded pretty innocuous, and for the most part, it is.
It is the kind of story that teenaged girls love. I would have loved it as a teenager. I would have read it more than once and cried many tears and been emotionally fragile for some time afterwards. It is comparable in some ways to books like Love Story or Catcher in the Rye, both of which I read and survived as a teenager. As an adult, I was pretty sure what kind of story it was (and I was right) and didn’t feel any need to read it until it was almost time for the movie to come out and I realized this was a HUGE event in teenage girldom. Lucy suddenly found herself involved in passionate online arguments about whether this was something that Christian girls should read or see, and whether or not it glorified sin, etc. There were strong opinions on both sides.
I couldn’t help noticing that those who came out most strongly against the story had not read it, and I knew that I had no right to say one thing or another about it unless and until I read it myself. Also, there was no way I was going to let Lucy see the movie unless I had read the book and had some idea of what she’d be getting into. And I was pretty sure I’d want to go with her so we could talk about it.
So, I set aside time on Sunday to read the book. It takes about four hours, in case you’re wondering. It was pretty much exactly what I thought it would be–a tearjerker of a story about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. I knew how it would end within the first few pages. But that’s not the point. The point is that both main characters are believable kids who aren’t always perfect and who happen to have cancer. Having cancer doesn’t make them saintly or specially wise or take away their sense of humor. In other words, they are characters that young readers can identify with, which just makes the tragic ending more powerful.
So here’s what I liked about the story (spoiler alert):
• It’s not about vampires or about kids who are forced to kill each other.
• Hazel, the narrator, is believable as a girl who has been sick for some time and is sick of being sick. She is tired of being hovered over by her concerned parents and tired of having lungs that don’t work without supplementary oxygen. She worries about the hole she will leave in her parents’ lives and thinks of herself as a grenade that is going to explode at some point, wounding everyone who loves her.
• Gus, the boy, is cocky and sure of himself, which I know only too well is perfectly normal for a teenage boy, even a boy with only one leg. He uses big words and comes on pretty strong–also normal. He is a terrible driver and doesn’t really care because hey, he can drive with his prosthetic leg!
• Their friend Isaac is in a sappy relationship with his girlfriend, but she dumps him when she finds out that he has to have his remaining good eye removed, which will make him totally blind. This, too, is very believable to me–believable and infuriating.
• Hazel is obsessed with a book by an author named Van Houten. The book happens to be about a girl with cancer, and Hazel reads it over and over and writes to Van Houten asking to know what happens to the characters after the book ends. Again, normal teenage behavior.
• Both of the main characters have caring, involved parents who do what they can to provide a “normal” life for their kids despite very trying circumstances.
• Gus is loyal to Hazel even when she tries to push him away, and eventually he wins her over.
• A trip to Amsterdam is involved.
• Hazel learns that another human being can’t be the answer to her questions. What she thinks she wants are a few simple answers, but what she really needs is something that no mere mortal can offer her.
• The “lesson” that is learned at the end of the book is that love is worth the price that we must pay for it, even if the price is a permanently broken heart, and that everyone can’t be a hero–which is okay. It’s enough to matter to just one other person.
Here’s what I wasn’t so crazy about:
• The support group that the young people go to is held in a church basement, which they mock as the “literal heart of Jesus.” They also mock the support group leader, who is a cancer survivor. The support group is pretty grim, and I’m not sure how it is supposed to help!
• The two main characters do have sex at one point. In the book, there is nothing graphic about it. It’s almost glossed over and not at all necessary to the story. They are not Christian kids and I did not expect them to have Christian morals, BUT what bothers me is what I believe is the mindset behind that story element, the mindset that says, “Sex is the ultimate experience any human could ever have, so those two poor kids have a right to experience it before they die.” It is seen as inevitable. Basically, this is the plot of many a bestseller. Guy and girl love each other SO MUCH, but for some reason they can’t be married (like maybe one or both are already married to other people, or one is terminally ill, or they follow different religions, or whatever). Therefore, since they are so in love, they must have physical intimacy because that is the chief point of living. I disagree, and I think the story would have been just as strong without this. Maybe stronger.
• Having “done the deed,” so to speak, there is no shame or embarrassment on either side. The only sign that they feel any guilt is the fact that they hide what they did from Hazel’s mother. Again, I realize that they are not Christian characters, but it horrifies me a little that we have reached the point in our society when it is considered normal and not at all shameful to have that kind of relationship in your teens.
• The author Van Houten is despicable and I like to think that most authors are a lot more grateful to their readers than he is.
• Gus’s use of cigarettes as a metaphor, while apropos and in character for him, bothers me just because I don’t want legions of young people to get the idea that they should go around with unlit cigarettes dangling from their mouths in the belief that that makes them cool.
So anyway, having read the book without so much as a single tear, I agreed to take Lucy to the movie yesterday. I knew that it would be harder to avoid tears during the movie because they do know how to manipulate your emotions. Even though it was an early afternoon showing, there was a pretty good crowd–most girls and women with a few unfortunate boyfriends along for the ride.
The movie is popular for good reason. All of the actors are pitch perfect, playing their characters as real kids, without sentimentality. They make you care about them, which of course sets you up for the waterworks to come. You get a virtual visit to Amsterdam. The bedroom scene is played “up” in the movie a lot more in the book, but that was hardly a surprise. It still was pretty tame and the movie is rated PG-13.
I don’t think the book or movie scarred my daughter in any way. I read the book not only for her sake, but because I write young adult stories myself and a story this popular is one I need to be familiar with. I would say that if you have a teenage girl who wants to see the movie, read the book with her first and discuss some of the issues it raises. Go to the movie together. Take lots of tissues. Talk about it afterwards.