In which Mary and Jessica talk about John Green’s latest book, The Fault in Our Stars. Mary has been patiently waiting for Jessica to finish this review all week, so let’s get down to it. (Oh, and there are no real spoilers to be found here. Ahoy!) Mary first:
Mary – Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of scripture. Not in the whole Bible or Qur’an way, but in the way that we come to sometimes find works of literature that are scriptural to us. That is, works that we want to keep coming back to, that we can keep using to find new insights into ourselves, that keep revealing new meanings and layers. I have a huge amount of books that fall under this heading for me, at least to some degree. Maybe I am being more capcaious with this term than I should be, and in fact many of the things I think of as scriptural are more comfort books. But, I am an ardent re-reader, and I prefer to think of my re-reads as somehow productive to my formulation as a person and as a reader.
What falls under this category? Austen’s works are this way. Harry Potter. Bishop’s poetry. Stevens’ poetry. Yeats’ poetry. 100 Years of Solitude. Deerskin. Heaney’s poetry. A.R. Ammons’ poetry. Paper Towns.
For Hazel Grace, the narrator of The Fault in Our Stars, scripture comes in the form of An Imperial Affliction, a book written by the mysterious and reclusive Peter Van Houten. (Jessica – I’d like to mention here that AIA is not a book from the real world. It exists only in the world of tFioS. More on this below in my bit.) Hazel is a terminally ill cancer patient who has been given a few more years to live via a miracle cancer drug named Phalanxifor. She meets Augustus Waters at a cancer support group, a boy who has been sick with osteosarcoma and has had a leg amputated, and the book then traces their relationship.
Which brings me to John Green. The Fault in Our Stars is a great book, but for me it is not scripture. I gave TFiOS five whole stars on my goodreads, and I stick by that. It’s so well written. It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s sad. Somewhere, though, I had a disconnect. I didn’t cry, and when I finished it I knew I would probably not open it again for a long time, if at all. It’s a book about loss, pain, desire, deprivation, love, desperation, autonomy and so much else. I encourage anyone and everyone to read TFiOS; it’s definitely worth at least one reading.
Maybe the problem, for me, is Hazel. Hazel Grace? I don’t know. I don’t particularly love Hazel. Something about her really irked me. Since I finished TFiOS I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I don’t like her, and it just eludes me. Does that make me a terrible, horrible person? To not really be able to identify with the cancer kid? I loved Gus. But Hazel. Oh, Hazel. Is it that I’ve e-stalked John for years and I’m too familiar with his voice to be comfortable with him so intimately inhabiting a girl’s voice? Or, is it that I knew from the start that she was terminal, and so I didn’t want to let myself get too attached? I don’t know.
There are moments of TFiOS that are so good it almost makes me want to re-read it. I loved the exchange about the literal heart of Jesus. And then, this moment of Hazel’s internal monologue is amazing:
“it occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again”
It reminds me of a badass Dickinson poem, which I am now going to quote here to end this ramble just because it’s awesome, encompasses a lot of themes of the book (I think), and you can’t have too much poetry even in a book review:
Satisfaction – is the Agent
Of Satiety –
Want – a quiet Comissary
For Infinity –
To possess, is past the instant
We achieve the Joy –
Were Anomaly –
Jessica – More than writing reviews for books, I like talking about books, I like conversations about them. So first let me react to Mary’s review. I’m sorry for this being a rambly mess, but I am writing it late at night, desperate to finish so Mary doesn’t vivisect me. (Guys, I don’t even know what vivisect means or if Mary could do it to me, but I’m scared.)
I’m fascinated by Mary’s concept of scripture. It really brings home for me a similar feeling – Paper Towns was/is scripture for me, The Fault In Our Stars is not. For me, though, I think it’s just that the themes of Paper Towns were much more relevant to me. My experience reading TFioS was pretty different from Mary’s. Difference No. 1: I was more irritated with Gus than Hazel, though that is mainly because he insisted on calling her Hazel Grace. *shudder* Difference No. 2: Around page 100, I started to cry and I didn’t full-on stop for fifty straight pages. At that point I put the book because I knew (in the way that people know things that may be wrong) that if I kept reading the book in my state, I wouldn’t stop crying for the rest of it. So the next day I picked it up and read it until I start to cry again. A few hours later I did the same thing. I read TFioS in these controlled spurts and I wonder if I damaged my own reading of the book. By so tightly controlling my emotional level, did I lose some of the engagement I might have otherwise had?
In the end, I don’t regret reading TFioS the way I did. Maybe it did lessen its impact, but I reserve the right as a reader to read a book however I want, in whatever emotional states I want. Which brings me, in a slightly roundabout way that may involve an intellectual leap or two, to An Imperial Affliction. As much as TFioS is about teenagers with cancer, and the “loss, pain, desire, deprivation, love, desperation, autonomy and so much else” that come with that, there is also a strong plot and thematic line about Hazel (and through Hazel’s influence, Gus) being hugely influenced by this book and having to deal with all of those things, loss and pain and autonomy, as fans, as readers, as consumers. Along with the cancer-related themes are themes relating to writing and reading, to producing art and consuming it. Of course, John Green is a great writer and the cancer affects how they feel/view AIA and AIA affects how they feel/view their cancers and their lives, but I think it’s also worth teasing out some of the differences there.
Though of course, that’s not a job for me, at least not here. That’s a job for the reader. That’s a job for you.