Book review: The Fault in our Stars by John Green

Reading a book about teenagers with a terminal illness who meet in a cancer support group is not recommended the week after your best friend has died from a terminal illness. But I did it anyway. Why? Well, firstly because I’m an idiot. I had a masochistic desire to reopen the wounds caused by grief and see how much they bled (a lot). But mainly I read this book because books have always been how I cope. As a child stuck in a small town they showed me how limitless the world inside my head could be. As a lonely teen they were constant companions. I chart moments in my life by what I was reading when it happened, those books forever fixed in amber so evocative of a particular time and place.

The Fault in our Stars will forever remind me of the dark days after Lianne died and no matter how much the sun shone it did not touch me. But I shall be forever glad I read it.

Here’s the blurb:

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

The book follows Augustus and Hazel as they try to track down the reclusive author of Hazel’s favourite book which ended mid sentence and find out the fates of the characters. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to spoil how the story unfolds. But you need to read this book.

This book is bitter and joyous, angry and so true about death and the reality of watching people we love die. It is the first book I have read in a long time which does not gloss over the reality of dying as beautiful instead its painful, ugly and. I loved it so much that I find it so hard to pin point the magic of why. Why is it easier to talk about things we hate than things we love?

The title is a play on a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves”

The book takes exception with this idea that fault rests with the individual as opposed to fate. Far too often bad things happen to good people like Hazel, like Augustus, like Lianne. The fault is not in the individual  but in the stars that good people die in agony and the world keeps turning all the same.

This book is filled with so many good quotes, I felt like I was scribbling down something every other page. Here are just a few of my favourite quotes and why:

“That’s the thing about pain…it demands to be felt.”

I have always been very good at functioning through pain. When I was 16 I walked until the soles of my foot peeled off. I was so distracted I only noticed because my shoes started filling up with blood. So when bad things happened I would shut them away in a box until I felt able to deal with them. Compartmentalise, baby. Grief does not work like that. In the days and months after her death grief has flattened me like a tidal wave and I have no choice but to sink. Feelings demand to be felt.

“The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before.”

When Lianne wasn’t sure about the course her tumours might take and whether it would effect her memories she asked all her close friends to write a history of our friendship with her. I tried but I only got as far as 18. There were too many memories, I kept forgetting the order and it made me realise that one day I’d be the only one that remembered some of these stories. And I’m no good at remembering. She was the memory keeper with her diaries and mementos. The memories already seemed faded, who will remind me what age we were, what were wearing. What’s the point of saying ‘Do you remember when?’ when there is nobody to finish those thoughts off.

“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.”

After Lianne was diagnosed they told her that with the type of the tumour she would be extremely lucky if she lived two years. In the end she lasted five. She fought tooth and claw for that time to say goodbye, to settle her affairs, to tell us she loved us over and over again. But it wasn’t enough. If she’d lived ten, fifteen, 30 years it wouldn’t be enough. When you love somebody it never is.

“The only person I really wanted to talk to about X’s death with was X.”

After I heard I just kept thinking uselessly I need to talk to Lianne but there was a void where she should be. I was 14 when we met but I already knew how rare it was to have the kind of friend you could talk to about anything. I was already a proto-counsellor in the making but Lianne was the person who counselled me. All I wanted to do after she died was talk to her. I kept staring uselessly at the telephone number on the my phone as if somehow I’d be able to get through to her.

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.”

I hate pain and will do anything to avoid it if I can. It says something about what type of person Lianne was that being her friend was worth for me the pain of saying goodbye to her.

This is the power of art that it takes an experience so deeply personal and expands it until you realise that you are not alone. Thank you, John Green

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