March 2014: The Fault in Our Stars
When two young cancer patients meet and fall in love, the result is the incandescent The Fault in Our Stars, the funny/poignant list-topping blockbuster of a novel by John Green. RealSimple.com social media editor Rachel Stein led our March 2014 discussion of the much loved Stars.
The Fault in Our Stars: Chapters 1 Through 6
How are you enjoying The Fault in Our Stars so far? Do you, too, feel a bit funny using the word “enjoying,” given the subject matter? And yet, that’s what’s so compelling about these first six chapters—Hazel Grace Lancaster is such a charming, straight-shooting narrator that I think of her first as a bright, hilarious teenager (“Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die” made me laugh out loud) and then as a terminal cancer patient. What was your first impression of Hazel? What about her most sticks out to you? Is there anything about her that you find unexpected?
So while The Fault in Our Stars centers on a girl with cancer, another central “character” is the good-intentioned but perhaps uncomfortably sympathetic noncancer crowd Hazel and Augustus have to deal with on an everyday basis. John Green does a wonderful job of establishing what it’s like to live with the stigma of cancer, (gently) poking fun at how we treat others with the disease with one brilliant term: Cancer Perks. They come in the form of undeserving driver’s licenses and infinitely extended deadlines, to name a few. Were you surprised at how frustrating Hazel and Augustus seem to find these well-meaning gestures? Is there something inherently wrong with characterizing people with cancer as “fighters” or “miracles”? I found it interesting when Augustus asked for Hazel’s “story,” and pointed out that he wanted her life story, not her cancer story—it’s difficult enough to come of age, and reading Hazel try to figure out her identity in the midst of dealing with cancer adds a poignant level to her journey.
Identity is a huge theme of this novel, especially through the lenses of love and art. Hazel’s relationship to music and books is at the forefront of The Fault in Our Stars. I think Green captured two types of feelings we have toward art: when Hazel listens to music in Augustus’s car and comments that the songs were good, “but because I didn’t know them already, they weren’t as good to me as they were to him,” and when she describes her complicated feelings about sharing An Imperial Affliction with Augustus, and how thankful she is that the novel doesn’t have mass success. Why do you think Green explores Hazel’s relationships to books and music in such depth? Does it have to do with her difficulty creating relationships with others? Or is her passion coming from somewhere else? (I’ll admit: I’m guilty of Googling An Imperial Affliction because I wish I could have read it after this.)
As for romantic and platonic love, deep emotions are intertwined with the insecurity and fear that come with cancer. This is most apparent in Isaac’s situation, where one moment he has a devoted girlfriend and the next he’s dumped because she doesn’t want to eventually break up with a blind guy, should the time come. What do you think of Isaac’s character? How do you think Hazel is processing Isaac’s breakup and projecting it onto her relationship with Augustus?
There’s so much more to talk about: “wasting” your Make-a-Wish, Augustus’s odd cigarette habit, Hazel’s poring over Augustus’s dead ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page, the possibility of an Amsterdam trip, all things Peter van Houten, “Okay,” and that cliffhanger at the end of Chapter 6! Please share your thoughts in the comments below—until then, see you next week to discuss through Chapter 12.
The Fault in Our Stars: Chapters 7 Through 12
We ended Chapter 12 on a high note—let’s hold on to that right now, as something tells me that the next 13 chapters will be less about spontaneous trips overseas and first loves, and more about…sadder developments.
The last we left Hazel, I was expecting she’d be so sick that Amsterdam would for sure be canceled. Color me pleasantly surprised! Did you believe the trip was really going to happen? It’s very much in line with the theme of the novel: that despite having a terminal diagnosis, Hazel’s life still semi-miraculously, stubbornly goes on.
On that note, I think Green does a wonderful job of keeping the element of surprise and the unknown in general at a constant in The Fault in Our Stars. Gus’s story about planning his possible cemetery plot and buying a “death suit” is an example that particularly sticks out in my mind, along with—of course—Peter Van Houten turning out to be a curmudgeonly (to put it kindly) recluse of a man. I personally do not respond well to the unknown, but for Hazel and Gus, the unknown is a way of life. Sometimes, the unknown is about as good as it gets, in fact. Have you found the turn of events to be unpredictable? Which elements have surprised you the most?
In that same vein, Van Houten may be an enormous jerk, but I deeply appreciated his argument that there is no after for characters in a novel. Their whole story is right there on the page (metaphor alert!), and they cease to exist outside of the story (with the exception of Sisyphus the Hamster). Of course, it’s exactly what Hazel doesn’t want to hear… and remarkably similar to how I felt after learning J. D. Salinger never told the whole story of Seymour Glass. Have you ever had this experience with a work of art? Did it make you appreciate the work more or less? How does it fit with Hazel’s relationship with Gus? I think the fact that Gus is a living, breathing person with emotions and experiences and answers may be the ultimate epiphany/turn-on for Hazel. That, and the fact that he is just plain wonderful.
Other points of discussion: It wasn’t nice of Isaac to go blind and put Monica in such an awkward position; the old swing set; Caroline’s deeply tragic demise; the Anne Frank house and the four Aron Franks; the question of God; and this line, which has stayed with me for the past few days: “The weird thing about houses is that they almost always look like nothing is happening inside of them, even though they contain most of our lives. I wondered if that was sort of the point of architecture.”
I’d also like to highlight that fellow Bookie dconnolly learned that An Imperial Affliction is meant to be a blend of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Peter De Vries' The Blood of the Lamb—two novels that I’ve been meaning to read myself!
Please leave your thoughts, fears, and favorite lines in the comments. I’ll see you back here next week.
The Fault in Our Stars: Chapters 13 Through 25
I’ll start our final discussion post with a quote from Chapter 13: “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.”
Of the many themes in The Fault in Our Stars, Green puts an emphasis on choice in the last third of the novel: choosing your worldview (are you the kid playing on Funky Bones or are you skeleton?); choosing how you mourn a relationship (egging your ex’s car turns out to be the ultimate champion here); and choosing who hurts you in life (…even just writing that line, days after I finished the story, gets me choked up again). To me, it seems Green is arguing that the best reason to make a choice is in the spirit of living a fulfilling life—and, more importantly, that sometimes choice is no longer an option.
What touched me the most in all of this is that when Gus no longer has the “choice” of dignity, that’s when Green gives us the most gory details of Gus’s day-to-day life: the mortifying moments that we don’t talk about during the slow death of a person, let alone the moments that you’ll never see on a sprawling canvas in the Rijksmuseum. Why do you think Green has us see Gus’s descent? I think it’s to drive home the point that sometimes going out on a high note just isn’t an option… and that it’s okay—in fact, it is a very normal part of the human experience, and “dying without honor” does not change the fact that Gus is a wonderful person who will be deeply missed by his loved ones. Of course, his very painful death also builds up to the touching eulogy scene and Hazel’s story’s climax.
Reading along as Hazel works through her pain was emotionally quite difficult for me, especially when she pored through Gus’s Facebook and got angry at others for mourning “wrong,” and when she lashed out at her parents. (I also paused after I read the detail that she no longer fits into her “death dress.”) I’m so glad that Green used this opportunity to finally show us—and Hazel—how well-rounded her parents really are: her father’s philosophy about the universe wanting to be noticed and that adulthood doesn’t hold many answers; her mother revealing that she’s been going to school to become a social worker. I know that many of you felt this book was predictable (and I do tend to agree for the most part), but I did not see that development coming. What’s your take? How did you feel about Green waiting so late to show us this side of Hazel’s parents? What is Green saying about adulthood? And how does Peter Van Houten’s character fit into this?
As usual, there is so much more to unpack, which is made especially difficult given how emotional the ending was. Frankly, I find it hard to write anything more than “I’m so sad!!!” Your comments throughout the discussion have been enlightening, and I’m honored that my first novel in our book club got to be this one. Please leave your thoughts below, and—drumroll!—questions you might have for John Green, who will be doing a Q&A for us.
I’ll get the ball rolling: While I can say on behalf of all of us here in the No-Obligation Book Club that we are quite grateful that you gave everyone in The Fault in Our Stars a “real” ending, did you at any point consider ending the novel in the middle of a sentence?
Thanks, everyone, for reading along with me.
John Green on The Fault in Our Stars
Here’s a good way to start the workweek: with answers from John Green to our questions about The Fault in Our Stars. They are honest and thoughful and maybe even a bit surprising. Enjoy.
From reader BringSunshine: How did you decide on a 15 year old girl as your main character? It seems like that is the polar opposite of you and would be extremely hard to relate. Why not make a boy the main character? Also, do you have a personal experience with family or friends regarding terminal illness to draw from?
Well, it’s hard to relate to anyone other than yourself, and so writing fiction is always an attempt at radical empathy, to try to live outside of yourself for a while. I wanted Hazel to be young because it was important to me to make the argument that a short life can also be a good and rich and worthy life. And I wanted her to be female because usually in these stories, it’s a man writing about a tragic woman. The woman suffers nobly and in doing so transforms the life of the man, who is then grateful for all the many lessons he learned from his now-gone great love. This construction reduces the meaning of a person’s life to “allowing other people to learn lessons,” and really I think meaning in life is a lot more complicated than that. It was important to me to invert the gender expectations and also to remove healthy people from the center of the story, so we can hopefully see that Hazel’s life has meaning in and of itself.
I did have a fair bit of personal experience to draw on. I worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital right after graduating from college, and in those months met many young people who were sick (and many who died). And I was deeply inspired by my friendship with Esther Earl, a young woman who died of cancer in 2010 when she was 16, and whose own memoir, This Star Won’t Go Out, has recently been published. Esther was a lovely person and a great writer, and I’m a huge fan of her book.
From reader xiandisc: Why the name Sisyphus for the hamster and why is Sisyphus the only one that gets an ending, when the mythological Sisyphus is condemned to an action of futility forever?
Well, that was the joke. I was fond of the idea that only Sisyphus would be able to get off the hamster wheel of ambiguity. (Also, I’ve just always thought it would be great to have a hamster named Sisyphus, because hamsters really do the same thing all day every day for what must to them feel like eternity.)
From reader karingam: Did you mean to have one of the major themes in the book center around the “human condition of man”? Regardless of what these young people were going through, they still remained “human”: living life, loving, feeling, thinking, laughing, dreaming, reacting, and playfully taking revenge, if need be. The human spirit is a wonderful and amazing thing and you reminded us of that so beautifully. Thank you!
Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, I did want to make the point that sick people—even gravely sick people—are still entirely alive and entirely human. I think many of us tend to imagine chronically ill or disabled people as somehow fundamentally Other. (Like, I remember when an elderly acquaintance was dying, I visited him and he was watching the news, and I thought to myself, “Why is he watching the news? He’s DYING.’ But of course he was watching the news because he was still human and still the person he had always been.) I hoped the story could show that disability does not prevent you from being fully part of the human adventure.
From reader CatKib: Is “Christ the center of life” your personal view? I thought the reference to the support group being in “the literal heart of Jesus” is a summary of our lives. Hazel and Gus may not have that knowledge and feel almost agnostic. But I believe the source of mercy, love, and wisdom they were searching for is Jesus. They found a limited form of each with their relationship with each other and a novel, but still were lacking.
I tried very hard to leave my personal religious views out of the novel. (I am personally a Christian—specifically, Episcopalian.) But both Hazel (who is agnostic) and Gus (who isn’t, at least insofar as the way he imagines the world seems to be contingent upon some kind of supernatural force) are grappling in a secular way with the reality—and apparent permanence—of death. That said, I wanted to present a variety of perspectives (including Hazel’s dad’s perspective, which is plainly theistic). The real question for me is: What kind of hope will stand up to scrutiny and hold fast in the hardest of hard times? I don’t think everyone has the same answer to that question.
From reader aStarc: What happened to the characters after the book ended? Did you come up with endings to their lives?
I don’t know! I feel bad that I don’t know, but I really don’t. I hope I’m different from Peter Van Houten in almost every way, but in this respect we are the same: He and I both believe that a novel ends when it ends, and that the voice of the author should not be privileged when it comes to matters outside the text of a story.
From reader dconnolly: My question for John Green is to ask how involved he was in the movie version of his book, and to ask him to share any general thoughts he has about this upcoming movie.
First, I love the movie. I think it’s the most faithful adaptation I could ever have wished for, and the performances are extraordinary and I’m so proud of everyone involved. I was definitely more included in the entire process—from script to casting to filming—than most authors, and I’m very grateful for that. I was on set for most of the filming of the movie and became good friends with many people in the cast and crew, and I hope that I was able to be helpful on occasion. That said, it’s not my movie. (I don’t know how to make movies.) So all the credit goes to the screenwriters, producers, director, cast, and crew.
From RS.com deputy editor Maura Fritz: Peter Van Houten’s appearance in Indianapolis felt very jarring to me—not in the way of a surprise that he was there but that it added a note of unbelievability to a situation that felt very believable. Why did you feel that having him appear in Indianapolis was necessary to the story? And given how beyond-their-years Hazel and Gus spoke and acted, did you ever consider making them anything but teenagers?
On Van Houten: I actually think they did this better in the movie than I did in the book, but I felt like I needed him to come back because I had to make absolutely clear that he was not saved by his encounter with Hazel and Gus, that no adults were saved by knowing them. The overwhelming theme in novels about illness is that the healthy people around the sick person learn Important Lessons about How to Be Grateful for Every Day or whatever, which I think is disastrously dehumanizing to sick people because it implies that sick people exist solely so that healthy people can learn from sick people’s suffering. So I felt that we needed to see him almost go down that path but then take a slug from his flask in the rearview mirror because he isn’t redeemed by Hazel and Gus, because Hazel and Gus’s lives have meaning that is separate from anything that anyone else might conclude about them. They have meaning within themselves.
On the language in the novel: Well, I think teenagers are really intellectually sophisticated. Like, the characters in TFIOS can’t be that far removed from the teen intellectual/emotional experience, since a lot of teens like the book. Certainly, actual people don’t actually speak that actual way, but I’m mostly interested in trying to reflect the way we experience conversation and emotion. (I don’t find so-called realism compelling in fiction, because it privileges—wrongly, I think—an abstract idea of objective reality over experienced reality, which is in my opinion the only verifiable/interesting/important reality.)
Also, I wanted to be super-conscious with TFIOS of the star-crossed-romantic-tragedy genre, and one of the defining features of the genre is the heightened, romanticized language, especially in dialogue. Like, the most famous example of this is in Romeo and Juliet: The first 14 lines that Romeo and Juliet speak to each other form a perfect sonnet. Now, obviously people don’t speak to each other in iambic pentameter, but it still works for me.
From discussion leader Rachel Stein, RS.com social media editor: While I can say on behalf of all of us here in the No-Obligation Book Club that we are quite grateful that you gave everyone in The Fault in Our Stars a “real” ending, did you at any point consider ending the novel in the middle of a sentence?
I did, yeah. But I do agree with Gus that it violates the unwritten contract between reader and writer. I think there’s a place for ambiguity in fiction—in fact, I think ambiguity is really important—but