book review

The Many Faults in Our Stars: Why I Wasn't Swooning Over Augustus Waters

Saturday, June 14, 2014

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

Readers everywhere were captivated by John Green’s breathtaking New York Times bestselling novel The Fault in Our Stars.  Fans voraciously turned the pages, hungry to hear more from the blissfully un-self-conscious Hazel Grace Lancaster, whose sage insights were delightfully perceptive.

Girls in particular clung to their books, captivated by Augustus Waters, who is handsome, chivalrous and charged with romantic energy.  With his “metaphor”, an unlit cigarette planted firmly in his mouth, he was the perfect representation for a romantic hero, certain to keep girls reading (and crying) through to the end. 

Considering that over 10.7 million copies of the book have been sold, it’s fairly safe to say that John Green did incredibly well.  His novel has the astute ability to connect with readers, drawing empathy and creating an intense relationship with his vivid characters.

John Green himself was astonished by the success, according to the UK newspaper The Telegraph.  When his book was released, the young adult literary market was already dominated by books that tried too hard to create make believe that is, quite frankly, unbelievable.  Bookshelves have long been stocked with werewolves, vampires, wizards, witches and, the newest genre fever, rogue heroes fighting against their dystopian authorities.  But this story is raw.  Forthright.  Daring.  And it wove its way into the hearts of readers everywhere.

Also, I must say, his title was a superb choice and a wonderful allusion to William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Cassius says, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

The Fault In Our Stars is a fairly typical teen romance.  Boy meets girl.  He’s charming and charismatic.  She’s kind of socially awkward, but smarter than she knows.  It follows a similar trope to Romeo and Juliet — except in this case, there is no family threatening to pull them apart.  It is the more abstract fear of “oblivion”, since both Gus and Hazel are teens whose final days have been written ever since the word cancer entered their lives.

But have we allowed ourselves to become absorbed in a book that isn’t quite what we think it is?  While I applaud John Green for his masterful ability to create a story that has resonated with so many, I question many of the principles advocated in the novel.  

I know that the book is wildly popular and I’m going to be treading in some difficult waters, but here are my concerns about what the novel advocates, and how it can, albeit unintentionally, romanticize tragedy.

1. The Fault In Our Stars depicts teenagers how they wish they were.  Not how they actually are.

I have heard from so many people how Hazel and Augustus are so believable, their dialogue exchanges so breathtakingly realistic.  But that is really the guise of good writing and eloquent phrasing, which is what makes Green such a good writer.  

The main characters’ quippy remarks and incredibly deep side notes are more a reflection of a 36 year old author’s musings on life than a 16 year old breathing out of an oxygen tank.  Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who are surprisingly wise with their random monologues about life, death and leaving a legacy.  

There are so many examples of this that I don’t know where to begin.
Gus: “My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations.”

How poetic.  Thank you, Gus.

Gus: “What I love about the sculpture is that it makes the bones that we are always walking and playing on manifest, like in a world that so often denies the reality of death and the reality that we are surrounded by and outnumbered by the dead. Here, is a very playful way of acknowledging that and that always, whenever we play, whenever we live, we are living in both literal and metaphorical ways on the memory and bones of the dead.” 

Manifest?  Like a world that so often denies the reality of death?  I’m sorry, but I just really can’t imagine a teenaged guy saying this out loud.  It sounds like he’s reading e. e. cummings or something.

Gus, yet again: "I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.” 
Yes, he says this out loud.  A seventeen year old boy from America says this OUT LOUD AND IN PUBLIC. I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t happen.

Hazel/Gus: “I imagined the Augustus Waters analysis of that comment: If I am playing basketball in heaven, does that imply a physical location of a heaven containing physical basketballs? Who makes the basketballs in question? Are there less fortunate souls in heaven who work in a celestial basketball factory so that I can play? Or did an omnipotent God create the basketballs out of the vacuum of space? Is this heaven in some kind of unobservable universe where the laws of physics don't apply, and if so, why in the hell would I be playing basketball when I could be flying or reading or looking at beautiful people or something else I actually enjoy? It's almost as if the way you imagine my dead self says more about you than either the person I was or whatever I am now.” 

Way too analytical. 

Hazel’s Dad: “I believe the universe wants to be noticed.  I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.  And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it–or my observation of it—is temporary?” 

Honestly. Who talks this way?  No one I’ve ever seen.

And that’s just the beginning. This little romance may on the surface seem believable, but it is really more an illusion, a fanciful depiction of how we wish we would act and speak if our days, too, were numbered.

2. Cancer becomes a means of justification.

This goes along with point one, about the believability of their wit.  It is true, as you may point out, that their sagacity is prompted by their impending death.  But if that is the reason for their astute philosophical observations, then are we not giving cancer the credit?  

Readers can be easily tempted to see cancer as the reason for their passionate affair (yes, affair), and even as a justification for many life choices.  In the midst of their “little infinity”, Gus and Hazel live suspended in an irresistible fantasy that readers began to covet and desire.  The danger here is that we have begun to romanticize the illness.

The other danger is that cancer becomes the only conflict between Augustus and Hazel.  They pretty much never fight or disagree.  They get along perfectly with each other’s parents.  They’re both “hot”.  They’re both physically, emotionally and sexually attracted to each other.  They’re even applauded in the Anne Frank house when they kiss.  The book portrays their relationship as utterly perfect in every way…except for cancer being the only thing that divides them.

This can leave Readers thinking things similar to,

Well, if I was dying, at least I’d have an Augustus.

Well, if we both had cancer, we could have such wise banter about meaninglessness and other things.

And, worst of all: If we knew we were dying, at least we could have sex and it would all be better.

There is the clear point in the novel that it is better for two teenagers to have sex outside of marriage than it is for someone to die a virgin.  This is especially emphasized through the way in which Gus is clearly ashamed of his virginity, drawing the circle of virgins with the smaller circle inside marked “17 year old guys with one leg”.

Is this what we’re telling young readers?

Also, I simply must address the movie’s tagline.  “A sick love story.”  That doesn’t in any way sound respectful or honoring.  Cancer is yet again a typical plot element, not a dangerous and disastrous part of many people’s lives.  

3. As Gus and Hazel discuss the meaning of life, there is a strong sense of hopelessness and nihilism.

Nihilism is the rejection of any moral principle, usually held in conjunction with the belief that life is meaningless.  No boundaries.  (At least, not when you’re dying.  If you have cancer, then suddenly anything is permissible.)  Not only does this help justify the transition in Gus and Hazel’s relationship from platonic to passionate, but it can also be a dangerous, self-defeating mindset.

One of the most telling lines comes from Hazel towards the end of the book.
“…and I was thinking about way back in the very beginning in the Literal Heart of Jesus when Gus told us that he feared oblivion, and I told him that he was fearing something universal and inevitable, and how really, the problem is not suffering itself or oblivion itself but the depraved meaninglessness of these things, the absolutely inhuman nihilism of suffering.” (281)

Oblivion means a state of nothingness or unconsciousness.  This is many people’s opinion of life after death—a state of floating sub-reality.  But according to Hazel, and as the novel seems to depict, even that is not to be feared.  Because oblivion is meaningless, as is suffering.  Pain and suffering and any sort of human ailment is deeply linked to the extreme philosophical skepticism which ascertains that nothing has real existence, that morals are rejected, and that life is, ultimately, futile.  Inconsequential.  Insignificant.  

This reminds me of Ecclesiastes 1, which says, “‘Meaningless!  Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!’”  But this is not advocating for aimless futility.  The book of Ecclesiastes is warning us that nothing holds meaning apart from God.  Life itself alone is a hollow shell.

Yet this is not what we walk away with after The Fault In Our Stars.  There is no hope.  We are pretty much told, “Life is short and fleeting and hard and miserable.  You may find love in spite of this, even if oblivion is looming.  But it won’t last because nothing lasts.  The end.  Be depressed.”

No wonder we leave crying.

Nihilism is part of the reason why Hazel and Gus are depicted more how teens wish they were viewed than how they actually are in real life.  They accept a nonchalance that many desire, but that is unrealistic.

Their deeply held belief in nothingness, or in Gus’s case, his “S” for Something, drives them to embrace whatever they want in the moment because there are no morals, no standards, no principles.  Why should there be?  Everything is meaningless.

I understand that John Green is a self-proclaimed Christian, who at one point had planned to be a minister.  The Fault In Our Stars was even inspired by his work as a hospital chaplain as he witnessed the impact of terminal illness in children.  However, I also see many, many faults in what this book is promoting.

We should read this book with a grain of salt.

This novel is pseudo-intellectual.  There is a lot of flowery language, making you think it’s deeply intellectual and philosophical.  But it’s not.  The themes are trite, the plot formulaic and easily predictable.  (Gus talks about death —especially in regards to the video games—so many times that it was instantly obvious.)

Hazel and Gus have a perfectly unbelievable relationship, and use cancer to justify underage sex and drinking (cancer perk, hmm?) because they “love each other”…even though, technically, they were on that trip to Amsterdam as still “just friends”.

Lastly, the novel supports nihilism, the blanket idea of nothingness and meaninglessness.  

As for the movie, which I saw opening weekend, it was an accurate representation of the book with many lines actually quoted from the text.  The actors were perfectly chosen.  But if you’re a fan of the novel and want to see the movie, I would advise you to look deeper into The Fault In Our Stars.  I, for one, see many faults hidden behind the pretense of a beautiful writing style that can cause us to be blind to what we’re actually reading.

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  1. Hi Ciera!
    First of all, this is a beautiful article, I love the thought you put into it and your perspective on the novel. I agree with many of the things you said. The way Gus speaks is indeed very unrealistic and the way Hazel and Gus' relationship is portrayed in such a perfect way is improbable. But I think, perhaps that is the very reason that we all fell in love with this story. We don't read to read about things that are realistic, we read because when we turn the first page of a book we enter a place in our minds where anything is possible. We read this book because even if it is just for the short time the book is in our hands we have the power to believe that a teenage boy really could be that romantic, or a relationship could be that beautiful and perfect. We all know and accept that these things can not actually come to pass, but we read because just for a moment we can pretend that they can. Reading is an escape to a place where even the most impossible thoughts, can momentarily become reality. I think that is what makes this novel so worth reading.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your response! And yes, in a way I think you're right. We fell in love with unbelievability because we desperately wished that it could be believable. And I understand that this is the role of fiction, to suspend our reality and allow us to enter a place where anything is possible. Reading is an escape, but I also think that it can be dangerous. Because if we don't acknowledge that stories like this are illusory, that people don't talk like Gus, that teenaged boys aren't really that romantic, that principles exist in spite of circumstances, then we start to romanticize these stories and believe they can happen. This can lead to a distorted view of what's actually real. I have a similar article on this topic called Fictiophilia (click here) about how we fall in love with stories (and characters) that are fictional, thereby distorting our actual perspective on other things. Again, thanks for your feedback!

  2. Hi Ciera! Thank you for writing this article!! I want to share this one, it is so accurate! I completely agree with all the points you made. haha, I thought a lot of those lines from Gus sounded like John Green's mind rather than a 17 year old boy's as well... I also like how you wrote about the [non-existent] principles and boundaries in the book, it really is sending the wrong message to young people. I was thinking about why it was so popular as well and you're right, all those perfectly worded lines from Gus really are unrealistic, but I think we wish they were real. I was quite disappointed when I heard that John Green is a self-proclaimed Christian yet mocks the church in his book...well, I enjoyed reading your review! :)

    1. Thank you for your response, Sabrina! And I think you're exactly right. I, too, kept wishing that people like Gus were real, that his quippy monologues were realistic — but sadly I don't think that's the case. Thanks for reading and for sharing!

  3. This was brilliantly written. Great job. :)

  4. You made some good points. I liked the way explain what you believe.

  5. Okay, so I will say right now that I have NOT read the book (and don't plan on it) but I know almost everything that happened so I might as well have read it and I agree with you fully! I'm 17 and I can tell you neither myself or my friends talk like that...ever.

    The part about the romanticizing cancer has me rather frustrated in all honesty. Cancer is not a pretty thing so it shouldn't be made out to be. I have never had cancer but I know a few people (family included) who have or had cancer and it is not fun. What you mentioned about the whole cancer issue and how its being romanticized is absolutely true! I have heard so many peoples comments about it after reading that book and they make it sound like a good! thing.....anyway...I'm kind of ranting(The whole Cancer issue really hits home for me).

    I think a lot of things in this book are rather unrealistic. (The way it portrays cancer, the relationships, the way people talk etc etc.) and I totally agree with you 100%.

    Beautiful post. Well done and right to the point!

    Adriana Gabrielle

    1. Thank you for reading, Adriana Gabrielle! I'm glad to hear that you agree. There were parts of this book that I appreciated, but over all I was really concerned by the responses that I heard from people who supported or blindly agreed with everything in the novel. I think it's always good to look deeper. :) Blessings!

  6. Hi, Ciera! I nominated you for the Liebster Award!

  7. Wow! This was amazingly insightful. I've never actually read The Fault In Our Stars, but if I do, I'll definitely read it with all of this in mind.

    Alexa Skrywer

    1. Thanks for reading, Alexa! The book is worth the read, especially to see why it's so popular. :)

  8. Thank's for such amazing review, you've done great! Wish you lot's inspiration!