The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

The Fault in Our Stars ISBN: 9780525478812
Publisher: Dutton Books 2012
Pages: 318
Links: WorldCatRead OnlineLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

When one’s transplant nurse recommends a book with a joke about her own profession (see below), one seriously thinks about reading that book. But then, upon looking up that book on Amazon UK, and finding that the blurb says

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

… one has one’s doubts. I read plenty of romance novels, but they’re all historical, and I have been known to be quite vocal about my intense dislike of Romeo and Juliet and Twilight-ish teen romances. In short, I HATE THEM. But enough about that and on to this book.

Going by my gut feeling that CNS Wood could not possibly have told me that I would like such wimpy rubbish as the blurb implied The Fault in Our Stars would be, I went ahead and downloaded a sample chapter (thank goodness for the Kindle app). And found that it started pretty well. So I bought the ebook. And then found the section which spawned her humour.

The nurse left. “Is she gone?”
I nodded, then realized he couldn’t see me nod. “Yeah,” I said.
“I’ll see? Really? Did she seriously say that?”
“Qualities of a Good Nurse: Go,” I said.
“1. Doesn’t pun on your disability,” Isaac said.
“2. Gets blood on the first try,” I said.
“Seriously, that is huge. I mean is this my freaking arm or a dartboard? 3. No condescending voice.”
“How are you doing, sweetie?” I asked, cloying.
“I’m going to stick you with a needle now. There might be a little ouchie.”
“Is my wittle fuffywump sickywicky?” he answered. And then after a second, “Most of them are good, actually. I just want the hell out of this place.”

Now I like her even more than I did before, and am so very glad that she does not talk to me like that! And it is also true that you say ‘thank you’ a lot in hospital, and I think we’re called patients because you do need a heck of a lot of patience…. there is an insane amount of waiting involved – waiting for diagnoses, treatments, tests and results, operations; and waiting, sometimes in vain, to get better.

So, as the blurb says, Hazel is a teen with terminal cancer (yes, there are characters that die in the book but not too predictably – it is a book about someone with terminal cancer after all, which is rather unforgiving). She goes to Cancer Support Group, and meets Gus, they hit it off, and then proceed to have a rather predictable romance.

This is alleviated, firstly, by the fact that both of them are rather erudite, and by virtue of their having been ill so young, are far more mature than the average teen;  secondly, that Hazel’s love for the (fictional) book An Imperial Affliction and her need to know what happened after causes most of the book’s action. I won’t reveal more than this as that would be way too many spoilers and this is too good a book for that.

For me, hitting, as the story does, so close to home with my own chronic and incurable illness, many of the book’s romantic themes struck fewer emotional responses than the truths told about being an ailing person – its effects on friends and family, its connotations for the rest of your life, and how you become ‘that person who has xyz’, rather than who you really are, or even who you were before you were ill.

Life before, and life after.

All conversations begin with ‘you’re looking good, so how are you doing’ instead of just ‘hi’. And even though you know it’s meant as an expression that they care, sometimes it is rather depressing to know that the first thing someone thinks about when they see you used to be YOU and now it’s the ailment, and that you have to talk about it in every conversation – but at the same time, weirdly, if they don’t ask you feel like somethings’ missing! But there are of course those gems of people who ask, genuinely listen to the (very short) reply, and then move on to other things – perfection.

Family members are truly the hardest hit, and for parents to see their child go through so much pain and to know that there is no hope for survival in the long term, Hazel’s

I went to Support Group for the same reason that I’d once allowed nurses with a mere eighteen months of graduate education to poison me with exotically named chemicals: I wanted to make my parents happy. There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer. {…} Most of the time, I could forget about it, but the inexorable truth is this: They might be glad to have me around, but I was the alpha and the omega of my parents’ suffering.

… is so evocative of things that you feel when you are at your worst…

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

…. which you never ever say to any of the people around you, and the things that people say to you …

“This is just a thing, Hazel,” my mom said. “It’s a thing we can live with.”

… upon which you then really wonder whether it is or whether it would be better to just stop. But then this happens …

My hair looked like a bird’s nest; my shuffling gait like a dementia patient’s. I felt a little better each day, though: Each sleep ended to reveal a person who seemed a bit more like me.

… and you think, okay, maybe just a bit longer. Until the next time …

I went into the bathroom, took my first shower in a week, got dressed, and when I got out, I was so tired I had to lie down and get my breath.

…. the vicious cycle just goes on never-endingly.

One parent invariably takes the burden of finding out everything there is to know, ferrying you between home and hospital and doing everything and anything; between the two of you, you pretty much know almost as much as the doctors. My father and I are encyclopaedic in our knowledge of my CKD though it has its negative effects on my overactive imaginaton, as Hazel expresses so well.

My shoulder hurt. I worried the cancer had spread from my lungs. I imagined the tumor metastasizing into my own bones, boring holes into my skeleton, a slithering eel of insidious intent.

And then other characters in the book deal with their own worries, and bring to the reader’s mind other concerns than family and carers.

What happens to you and your own self-esteem when your romantic partner tells you that they want to break up before you get worse because they can’t handle it. You can, so why can’t they, you think…  it’s often far more difficult for those around the chronically and terminally ill to deal with the illness than the patient themselves. They are alive and want to live their lives free of guilt and illness. And, as Green says via his characters, illness and disability repulses – not just physically, but emotionally.

I recently watched Rachel Stevenson’s In Sickness and In Health, about her journey through donating a kidney to her husband. She begins with an admission that what she did was selfish. Throughout the film she repeats one thing – she want their life to go back to ‘normal’, to what she envisioned their life as a couple being.

‘I want my life back – I want our life back’.

Her spare kidney might not bring back normality. And her husband’s reaction is also something to think about – how do you deal with taking a vital organ from your wife, when you know that your brother’s has already failed within you. It was natural for me to accept my father’s because I would have done the same for him, but my constant fear is that his kidney that’s given me back a semi-normal life will fail or that my body will reject it, and I will have wasted his loving gesture.

The Fault in Our Stars expresses also Hazel’s wish not to affect the lives of those around her too much, because she is a ‘time-bomb’ that may go off at any time, leaving devastation in her wake. Gus, however, is of the persuasion that you should take love and life when you can get it, live to the fullest extent, however little that may be, and enjoy it while you can.

As Stevenson says in her film,

We expect so much from the big moments in life, but it’s been the small things that have turned out to be the most important.

Read this book. Enjoy the romance. But look below the surface. Apply the lessons it teaches to your own life. You may not be ill. You may not be short on time. But enjoy life anyway. Treasure each happy moment – you’ll realise they were special later on. Do what you want to do sooner rather than later. You never know what’s around the corner.

And as a friend (or someone) said, when life throws you a curve ball, just pause, yell ‘PLOT TWIST!’ and carry on.

PS. I just found out that the book is apparently being released as a film sometime in 2014. I watched the trailer, and am not pleased with their interpretation… seems to have turned into the standard Romeo and Juliet pap. Ah well, trailers are sometimes deceptive. We shall see if the depth of the book translated well. Hope it’s not like Ender’s Game, one of my all-time favourite books. Which I should also review at some point.

Arati Devasher

Arati Devasher

Book Designer and Artist at
"To be honest, I've always been a bookworm. So I've turned my love of books into a design career that I enjoy."

A book designer, Arati has always enjoyed books and the world of imagination that they open up. She is extremely accident-prone, due entirely to absent-mindedness caused by thinking about books and their contents, instead of paying attention to what she's actually supposed to be doing. She reads multiple books simultaneously, and her choices range from cookbooks and design manuals to fantasy, crime and Regency romances.

She lives and works in London, UK and sells her art on paper and textiles at Etsy
Arati Devasher

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