Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why You Should Care About 'The Fault in Our Stars'

When I was in high school, I was close friends with a group of about seven other people. We stayed in touch after graduation, planned holiday parties with white elephant gift exchanges together. We settled back into a sense of normalcy even though our lives were each headed in different directions. I loved these people and though our little group has since fractured, I’m close friends with some of them still. I even live with one of them. Back in high school, my friends were interested in things like Doctor Who and hipster bands, but they were also invested in a particular author. My friend Karlee was, and still is, a huge fan of this person’s work. She met him. His name is John Green.

It seems logical that my group would become invested in John Green’s book Paper Towns. Green used to live in central Florida, where I currently reside and where my friends did, too, and Paper Towns is a novel that is set in our neighboring town of Winter Park. We passed that book around our little circle, each of us getting the opportunity to read it after the other had finished. (We passed around Looking For Alaska, too, but somehow I didn’t get looped into that exchange and have yet to actually read it.) When you’re a teenager, it makes sense that you read young adult novels. I was mildly obsessed with authors like Meg Cabot during my youth. But when The Fault in Our Stars was released, I was just about to turn twenty-three years old. Long gone were the days of high school and “youth,” and yet… I requested that Karlee lend me this book. (She did one better and bought me a signed copy of it for my birthday). Why? Because I was desperate to know this author that my friends had admired so much in high school. I was anxious to hear his voice and get to know his characters. And I was not disappointed with what I discovered.

With the release of the movie version of Green’s TFiOS (as all the cool kids call it these days) imminent, I thought I would write a little post on why you – yes, you – should care about this novel and why you should care about young adult novels, too.

It was a Friday night – actually, it was technically a Saturday morning – and I was still awake at two o’clock, sobbing into a pile of tissues. Nothing catastrophic had happened. My family was okay. I hadn’t broken up with a boyfriend, though it felt like I had. I had finally finished reading The Fault in Our Stars and I was a wreck.

As someone who graduated with a degree in English, there’s nothing I enjoy more than recommending books to friends. Whenever I recommend John Green’s 2012 novel, I always preface it by saying: “This book will destroy you in the best way possible.” And friends usually roll their eyes good-naturedly at that warning because I can be overdramatic and yes, I cry at pretty much the drop of a hat. But inevitably, those same friends will text me when they’re half-way through the novel and express how much they’re genuinely upset and sobbing. My sister, who never feels emotional attachment to fictional characters, texted me to tell me how sad she found the story to be. Now, this is not why I recommend the book to people. I’m no sadist – I don’t recommend this book because I enjoy hearing my friends tell me how emotionally distraught the 300-page novel made them. I recommend this book for the same reason that anyone recommends a book: it changes you.

The Fault in Our Stars is a cancer book but it’s not a cancer book. There’s no real way to describe it, apart from that. It’s a love story and a tragedy. It’s a narrative and a diary. It’s a story about hope and about life and loss and love and teenage angst. And I think that so many people dismiss young adult novels because, traditionally, the themes that contained within are not necessarily juvenile but they’re just not relatable. They’re dated, quite frankly, and when you’re a twenty-something year old post graduate who is dealing with the stress of apartment and job-hunting and paying bills and balancing friends and family, you just can’t quite connect with a sixteen-year old whose biggest problem is whether or not she’ll attend the prom solo or with a date.

I don’t have the same problems that I did in high school. In fact, the problems that I had in high school are downright laughable to the problems I encounter in my twenty-five year old daily life. And I’m certain that when I turn thirty-five, the problems of today will seem laughable, too. That’s the inherent problem with young adult novels – they’re great for young adults, but when you outgrow that phase of your life, it’s difficult to reconnect with those youthful woes again. Not so with The Fault in Our Stars. I’d argue that though this novel is branded as a young adult one, it is a universal novel. It is one that does not contain themes specific to teenagers. Hazel Grace Lancaster may be a sixteen-year old and Augustus Waters may be seventeen, but that doesn’t mean their problems are confined to their ages. These two individuals experience the spectrum of emotional turmoil and joy throughout the novel. And it doesn’t matter that I’m almost ten years older than these characters because I GET them.

Even in Paper Towns (also a young adult novel), John Green had a way of reminding us that young adults are adults, too. They may be in high school, but that doesn’t mean that their dreams and visions and issues are confined to their ages. And what Green and I suspect many other young adult authors are now doing is this: they’re shaking up the genre. They’re turning the misconception that “young adult” is equivalent to “trivial” or “menial” or “silly high school problems” and revealing the truth that young adults these days are going through a lot more than we realize. Young adults are depressed and anxious. Young adults are having children of their own. Young adults love and lose people they love and their struggles and their triumphs are not somehow less than those of us who the world labels to be “adults.” These authors are giving the same weight to the teenagers in their novels that other authors give to adults. 

“Don’t look anyone look down on you because you are young,” Timothy wrote (1 Timothy 4:12). I think that a lot of adults – myself included – for a long time have breezed past the Young Adult section of the bookstore because we’ve believed that section to be irrelevant to our interests. And what Green revealed to me, at least, with The Fault in Our Stars is that there are characters – brilliant and broken and delightful characters – within the pages of those novels that are being ignored because they’re young. Yes, not EVERY novel in the Young Adult section may contain deep and philosophical truths. There are probably lots of fluff books, lots of ones that don’t have any significant messages relevant to the majority of the world, but there are probably also books like Green’s that may be slighted by us adults because of the characters’ ages.

The Fault in Our Stars is a book that made me cry… a lot. I became emotionally attached to and invested in the journeys of these characters and when I was sucker punched by an event I didn’t dare to see coming, I was heartbroken. I won’t spoil the novel for you because I suggest you read it for yourself, but make no mistake that even though Green’s novel will likely make you reach for the tissue box, it’s not a SAD story. It’s a story that has a hopeful ending because that is what the journey of the characters is grounded in. Maybe it’s perfect that this is a young adult novel and not an adult one because I think too many of us have lost the idea of hope that Hazel and Augustus see throughout their journeys. We’ve lost the feeling of what it means to be in love – really in love – in spite of our baggage. We see the baggage of these characters and we see their obstacles and it makes us believe again. It makes us think that there is hope for us jaded adult-folk because there is hope for these cancer-stricken kids.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is a great character. John Green always has a knack for extracting this sarcastic, dead-panned, bright voice and implanting it into his characters. These aren’t recklessly stupid teenagers. They’re not unintelligent. They’re witty and engaging and sometimes they sound more like adults than the adults do. I love Hazel Grace because she’s real. She’s flawed and she’s scared and yet she cannot help but love Augustus. Isn’t that a beautiful notion? That even though this young woman believes herself to be a grenade, destined only to destroy and not mend the lives around her, she still cannot help but love. That’s not a young adult-specific image, readers. That’s a model for all of us. Augustus with his beautiful eyes and his winning smile and his adoration of Hazel Grace and his persistence make him admirable. He’s a hero because he chooses life instead of death. And I think that Hazel needed Augustus to remind her that life that is lived is WORTH it, no matter what heartache may come and no matter what pain is inflicted. “That’s the thing about pain,” he said as he watched Isaac smash trophies in a fit of rage. “It demands to be felt.” I agree, Augustus. This notion that we can somehow hide from our pain – that we can become reclusive whether externally or internally – is something that is applicable not just to young adults but to adults. Haven’t you ever shut down? I know that I have. I’ve been so overwhelmed and burdened by things and people that I have shut myself down and off to the world around me. I foolishly believed that if I did this, I would be better somehow. 

What The Fault in Our Stars reminded me is this: you cannot shut yourself down and you cannot shut yourself off to the people around you. You cannot think of yourself as a grenade. If you do, you will stop living. You will stop loving with your entire being. And living and loving with all that you have – whether you’re sixteen or sixty-two – is something we can all understand and relate to. It’s a message worth hearing for me, at least. Now, this doesn’t mean that John Green advocates recklessness in his characters (though occasionally they ARE reckless because they’re teenagers and we remember how in our youths, we often had the freedom to be reckless), but he DOES advocate living. Isn’t that pretty delightful? In a book about cancer, Green advocates life. Hazel’s parents want her to be a teenager and to make friends because they want her to live her life to the fullest, whether she has one day left or one thousand. (As an aside, the depiction of Hazel and Augustus’s parents throughout the novel is pretty wonderful. They are supporting and loving and they all grieve in their own ways. The parents aren’t overbearing and they aren’t the typical parents that you find within young adult novels or young adult movies who are berating and needling. No, these are parents who show love in their own ways. Hazel considers her parents to be her best friends and I genuinely delight in the fact that they ARE and that they know their daughter well enough to tell her the truth and to remind her of who she is to them.)

So why should you care about The Fault in Our Stars? This was the question I sought to answer through this post and I don’t know if I’ll ever have a complete and well-formed answer, to be honest. I don’t know if I can articulate WHY you should care about this non-cancer cancer book about teenagers. I don’t know if you’ll love it or hate it, should you choose to read it. Why is it important to know Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters anyway? Why is it important to read a sad story that isn’t all sad? Perhaps the best question is this: why SHOULDN’T you?

Why shouldn’t you read a story that is about hope? Why shouldn’t you read a story that is full of laughter and love and loss? The Fault in Our Stars may be a book where the protagonist is a teenaged girl but that doesn’t mean her voice is confined to her sixteen-year old body. No, Hazel Grace Lancaster is not her age and she’s not her gender: she’s the reminder that we are all suffering in some way and that we all have the choice to either shut ourselves off from the rest of the world or embrace the pain and heartache but utter joy that comes with loving and living. 

I know which choice Hazel makes in the novel, so which will you choose?

1 comment: