Friday 24 January 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

I'm often the last person in the world to read a book. And so it was with The Fault in Our Stars.

They were even reading it on the Metro in Paris last year.
I can make anything about Paris. 

There has been so much hype about this book, and with the movie coming out in a few months time was running out for me to read it. The sole copy in my library is always on loan. Actually, it's rare to find a copy of any of John Green's books available for loan. So I asked for a copy of The Fault in Our Stars for Christmas. And Santa came through.

Still I'm Rather Terrible at actually reading books that were presents, so much so that Mr Wicker always grumbles when I ask for a book as a present, so that still doesn't guarantee that I'll get it read. And it is somewhat true. I haven't read last years Christmas present books, or the year before that, or…. But this week I had the glorious gift of time. 4 days! All to myself, with really nothing to do. So I took to the couch and read The Fault in Our Stars. In a day. I don't really remember the last time I read a book in a day. Perhaps when I was bedridden with flu at some stage.

Happily, I didn't know all that much about The Fault in Our Stars when I read it (and I'm not planning on spoiling the fun here just in case there is still someone else left who hasn't read it yet). I knew that it was about two kids meeting while having cancer treatment. But somehow I didn't know much more than that.

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death. 

Hazel Lancaster is our 16 year old narrator, three years earlier she was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer, and given a very grim prognosis, the option of treatment, not cure. Hazel is an only child, living at home with her parents, who are supportive and loving. Hazel hasn't been to school in three years, but studies from home with the assistance of her mother. Hazel's mother encourages her to go to a weekly Support Group in the basement of a local church. It is at Support Group that Hazel meets Augustus Waters.

The Fault in Our Stars is as powerful, moving, funny and sad as everyone says it is. A story about two kids falling in love at a cancer Support Group is going to be that way. John Green is very clever though. We have all the big themes. Life. Death. Love. Grief. Family. Friends. Church. America's Next Top Model.

So here's how it went in God's heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story- how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn't die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meagre living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way towards a master's degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of us nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life. 

There is an intriguing story within the story based on a fictional book and writer. I wasn't particularly expecting to be thinking about Shakespeare, Venn Diagrams or Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, or for there to be a picture of it.

Hazel disagrees with it, and I don't know that
 I'm fully comfortable with it either. 

Or to finally understand Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe for the first time. D'Oh!

I didn't know that The Fault in Our Stars was party set in Amsterdam. It's always exciting when you're familiar with the location of a book. While I know next to nothing about Indianapolis, I did go to Amsterdam last year. Anne Frank Huis. Vondelpark. Rijksmuseum. The canals. We did it all. I must use this as an excuse to show you more pictures of Amsterdam. It's a fascinating and beautiful city.

Still there are annoyances in The Fault in Our Stars. John Green like, reproduces, like the way teens speak. It's not on like every page. But it's there.

After getting our bags and clearing customs, we all piled into a taxi driven by this doughy bald guy who spoke perfect English- like better English than I do. 

The Daily Mail in the UK stirred up quite the internet storm last year when it derided 'sick lit'  books including The Fault in Our Stars. It was a lot of sensationalist posturing really. Illness, dying and death are part of our human experience. Characters have been sick or dying in books as long as there have been books. And in books written for adults, teenagers and children. Dickens anyone? Heidi. Pollyanna. The Secret Garden. Tuberculosis in art even has it's own wiki page. John Green is still frighteningly young, but when he was even younger he spent time as a student chaplain at a children's hospital. He got to meet and know children with cancer, it was their stories he wanted to tell. 

Well many years ago I worked as a student chaplain at a children's hospital, and I think it got lodged in my head then. The kids I met were funny and bright and angry and dark and just as human as anybody else. And I really wanted to try to capture that, I guess, and I felt that the stories that I was reading sort of oversimplified and sometimes even dehumanized them. And I think generally we have a habit of imagining the very sick or the dying as being kind of fundamentally other. I guess I wanted to argue for their humanity, their complete humanity.

Sick lit is just a more recent, if somewhat pejorative, term for illness in our stories, riffing off chick lit. I much prefer sick lit to all the vampire, werewolf, shape shifting stuff of recent years. 

But even within the Daily Mail article there is some good advice. 

So the next time your teen is curled up with a book, ask them what it's about, says Emma. 

Yes you should do that. Because you're interested. In your child. And what they're curled up reading. (I always cheer on the inside when I see my teen curled up reading- reading anything, because it means that he's stopped playing Minecraft for at least 8 minutes), but not because it might be sick lit and they're at risk of becoming depraved.


skiourophile said...

"Sick lit" - new addition to my vocabulary. Fascinating discussion about that - I wholly agree with you about the significance of the theme. Oh, and you are the second to last person to read this book... ;-)

Brona said...

As an adult reading Green, the teen dialogue does grate rather quickly - esp if you're living with teen dialogue!! But I believe the teens reading it, love it for sounding real - heaps good ;-)

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) said...

You're not quite the last person to read this, it's still on my to-read list. I don't know much about it either other than a lot of people are recommending it. And I didn't know it was going to be a movie. I am planning to listen to the audio - my library has a copy. Hopefully the teen dialog doesn't get too annoying. :)

Swan Pond said...

Hi Louise, I read it yesterday (in a day) and was pretty impressed. I have to admit I hadn't noticed the like teen talk especially. I was more tuned in on the touching moments, which I think John Green did very well. 'Sick lit' is so perjorative don't you think? Given as you say, so many great kids, YA and adult novels feature illness and death. And where would tv be without such?