When I’m not reading book blogs (or, y’know, engagingly actively with the outside world, whatever that is), you’ll probably find me watching vloggers on YouTube. I don’t watch any of the book vloggers any more, as they rarely talked about any books I’d be interested in (other than the one I’m going to write about today), but I do watch a lot of funny people, generally just talking about things that have happened to them, or opinions they hold. One of these channels is called the vlogbrothers, where brothers John and Hank Green each make weekly videos addressing each other, but also addressing all their audience (whom – which? – they call ‘nerdfighers’, which is a little too high schooly for my liking, but I’ll let it pass).
Anyway, John Green is not only a YouTube star, but a bestselling author. He’s written a few books, but it is his most recent, The Fault in Our Stars (2012), which caught my attention, and which my friend, ex-housemate, and self-proclaimed nerdfighter Liz lent to me.
Now, The Fault in Our Stars is teenage fiction. I’m afraid I hate the term ‘YA’ (‘young adult’) because it is always used to refer to teenagers who are not young adults. I am a young adult, being about a decade into adulthood. The demographic of most fiction encompasses my age group. Teenage fiction is for younger-than-adults, or old-children, but not for young adults. Vent over. Anyway, I haven’t really read any teenage fiction since I was a teenager, and I didn’t really read much of it after I was about 14. I know a lot of grown-up readers (including bloggers) engage with it a great deal, and that’s fine with me, albeit a little confusing. (People often say something along the lines that it “deals with issues that adult novels wouldn’t cover”, which simply isn’t true, since adult novels cover pretty much everything between them.)
I could turn this post over to a discussion for and against teenage fiction (and feel free to chime in on that, should you so wish) but instead I want to talk about The Fault in Our Stars specifically. It was immediately obvious to me that it was teenage fiction, and I’m not sure why – partly, of course, because the protagonist Hazel (a girl with terminal cancer) is a teenager, but also the style. Its simplicity, maybe? Pass. A few pages in, and I could cope with that, though, and didn’t remain at my initial psychological distance from the book. Indeed, I embraced it, and was swept along.
Hazel is 16 and she is dying of cancer – more precisely, she has Stage 4 thyroid cancer with metastasis forming in her lungs. Green had spent some time working as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital, years before he wrote this novel, and you can tell that he is familiar not only with the goings-on of support groups and medical procedures, but the dynamic of teenagers living with cancer. Somehow it is not an outsiders’ book – although Green has not had cancer, and I have not had cancer, I didn’t feel like their was a barrier between Hazel’s experience and my understanding of it.
Green presents a girl who is sarcastic, witty, secretly a bit sappy, and rocketing along a path of self-discovery, finding her place in the world – she is like every teenage girl in the West, then. Except she has cancer. It is an intelligent portrait because, although cancer is (obviously) the overriding focus of her life and those of her family, it doesn’t seem to be the starting point of Green’s creation of the character – instead, it is something that happened to a character he created, even if it happened before the novel began.
The main thrust of the plot, indeed, is more typical of teenagers’ novels – and adults’ novels – that is, love. Hazel meets Augustus (Gus) Waters, a heartthrob teenage ex-basketball player – who is in remission from osteosarcoma (to which he lost a leg). He is suave, funny, handsome, muscular, sweet etc. etc. I.e. he’s not as realistic as Hazel, in my book; he reminded me a bit of Todd from Sweet Valley High, if that oh-so-literary reference means anything to you. Their relationship is cotton-candy sweet, of the variety which comes with passionate kisses being applauded in public. Yes, that ‘public’ is Anne Frank’s house, but it works in context… just.
A more nuanced subplot is the shared love Hazel and Gus have for a novel called An Imperial Affliction by Peter von Houten (which doesn’t exist in real life, but Green’s novel seems to have spawned dozens of fake cover art attempts – just Google Image Search it.) Of course, the author is not all he seems… but it’s a nice, interesting story – and goodness knows I’m a sucker for a character who loves books and reading, in any novel.
Ultimately, this is a book aimed at teenagers, and I believe they are the readers who will most benefit from it. Hopefully it will inspire a love of reading in people who watch the vlogbrothers channel and, acting in the same way as Point Horror and Sweet Valley High for me, lead them eventually onto adult novels and older literature. But it is not simply a gateway to later reading; for its intended age group, and for anybody being indulgent for an evening, it’s a fantastic and well-crafted novel.