Hazel Lancaster is sixteen years old and, by choice, her best friends are her parents. For three years she has not gone to school at all. She considers herself a grenade, one that stands only to hurt those closest to her. She keeps everyone but her parents at a distance so that when the cancers wracking her lungs finally stop being held back by the drugs, there won’t be anyone (well, almost) that will be hurt by her loss.
Then she meets Augustus Waters at a support group for teens with cancer. Gus is nominally a survivor, in remission from the cancer that took his leg, and only shows up at the support group because his friend Isaac is on the verge of losing his one remaining eye to save his life. Hazel and Gus shouldn’t really get on. They have little in common apart from cancer.
But they bond over a book about a girl with cancer that ends mid-sentence, and then embark on a joint quest to track down the reclusive author and find out what happens to all the other characters afterwards. As with most plotlines like this, however, it’s not the journey that matters, it’s the people who are on it, and what happens to them en route, that make the novel what it is.
There is a line in Les Miserables where Victor Hugo states: “It is nothing to die. It is a tragedy not to live.” John Green doesn’t need to quote the line in his novel because that’s what the entire book is about. It is a story about living, not dying. Hazel has prepared for death, but after she meets Gus she realises she no more has to sit around and wait for it to come than any other mortal.
Initially Hazel and Gus seem like the usual acerbic, slightly cynical outsider types that John Green writes about a lot. Except both of them are well aware that it’s all front, and the fact that they don’t need to put it on for each other brings them closer. Green goes places he for the most part avoided in the other two novels of his I have read (Looking For Alaska and Paper Towns). He always reined it back at the last minute, leaving his books nicer, but less honest, than the YA works of Melvin Burgess, Benjamin Zephaniah and, of course, Stephen Chbosky.
Last year I read the superficially similarly plotted Anthem for Jackson Dawes, but the novels are quite incomparable. That really was just a cancer book (however good), but The Fault in Our Stars is not really about cancer. The title comes from a line in Julius Caesar, in which Caesar explains to Brutus that fate is out of our hands. This novel is about two ill-fated people stopping using that as an excuse.
This time five years ago I was trying to write a novel about young people facing up to mortality (theirs and everyone else’s). After two years and some 65,000 words, I ran into trouble, and had no idea what came next. I never did finish it, but now I don’t have to. I can see why The Fault in Our Stars resonates with so many teens. I imagine it would have the same effect on many adults, if they gave it a chance.