Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

11870085Superb! I absolutely love this book, but before extolling its literary excellence, a brief synopsis: Three teenagers with cancer, Hazel Grace, Augustus, and Isaac, meet in a cancer support group. Hazel Grace is terminal, Augustus is in remission (but had one leg amputated), and Isaac must have his second eye removed due to his cancer returning, leaving him blind. It sounds depressing, but it is filled with humor, beautiful dialogue, numerous allusions to my favorite authors, and more importantly, profound truths.

Hazel and Augustus share the same sense of humor, ask the same questions of the universe, love the same book, and rival each other’s incredible vocabulary and IQ level. Isaac becomes a sort of lovable third wheel when his girlfriend leaves him because he is now blind after promising him “always.”

Hazel fears being a “grenade” in the lives of her friends and family. She knows it is inevitable that her parents will be inconsolable when she dies, but she hesitates to get involved with Augustus because she is afraid of breaking his heart, which she sees as avoidable. Augustus fears dying and fading into oblivion. He just wants to be remembered, and he wants his death to have a purpose. He longs to be a hero, but of course, dying of cancer is pretty purposeless.

Augustus spends his cancer-perk-wish on Hazel’s dream of meeting her favorite author, Van Houten, and finding out the unwritten ending to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, about a girl dying of cancer, which stops abruptly without any resolution. Hazel and Augustus have a romantic Dutch holiday even though Van Houten is a jerk. That’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers.

Although most people I know love this book, I’ve run across a few who have various complaints, and some who downright hate the book, so I’d like to address these criticisms and get them out of the way.

The Fault in Our Stars is beautifully written, some say too beautifully. Yes, it may seem corny to certain readers that Augustus speaks in long romantic monologues, and waxes philosophical, and that Hazel and Augustus are far too mature, and it is incredibly unlikely that too super-geniuses with terminal cancer would meet and fall in love, but so what? All these things actually make the book more interesting, in my opinion. Who wants to read a book with boring, ordinary, emotionally immature, and illiterate cancer patients? It is unlikely that people in Shakespeare’s day spoke in rhyming iambic pentameter, but we appreciate the art and beauty of it, and the truths that matter are there, as they are in The Fault in Our Stars. These truths are even more abundant because they are so eloquently delivered via metaphor, symbolism, and allusion. However, I will admit that I do agree with some readers that Augustus and Hazel are too similar, almost the same character. Hazel is more serious and more selfless, but it is strangely narcissistic that they fall in love.

Another grievance among the disparagers of this novel is that it is not comforting to cancer patients or their families. Well, it is my belief that this book is not primarily written for either cancer patients, or those they leave behind. I believe it is written mainly for the obliviously healthy, those living their lives appreciating little, caring for less, and noticing naught around them, to see life through the eyes of a terminal cancer patient and wake up. Reading TFiOS is contemplating the universe vicariously through the eyes of those that have the luxury of knowing this is all the time they have, the here and now, and it is short, way too short. I don’t mean to be disrespectful by calling it luxury–cancer is horrible, senseless, cruel, but in some ways Green is saying that it is a gift, a gift to know how much time you have left and how valuable that time is. The book’s existential message is that we give life whatever meaning we want to give it, and it is beautiful and worth living to the fullest, every minute of it. Hazel and Augustus are lucky in that they know they don’t have much time left. They realize the tragedy of their impending death; therefore; they live abundantly, “sucking the marrow out of life” as Thoreau put it. We don’t do that because we don’t know we are dying; we don’t know tomorrow could be our last day.

However, the most amazing thing about this novel is all the allusion to wonderful pieces of literature. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he quotes Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” names the hamster in Van Houten’s novel, Sisyphus, refers to Walt Whitman’s philosophical ideas, and he quotes my all-time, absolute personal favorite, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, among many others. Being a book nerd, these allusions transported me to literary heaven. But Green does not quote and namedrop for no reason.

The title of the novel comes from Julius Caesar, wherein Cassius tells Brutus that it is not fate that is responsible for our misery, but our own failings are responsible for the tragedy in our lives. But when Van Houten writes in his letter to Augustus, “Never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves.’ Easy enough to say when you are a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars” (Green, p. 111-112). By titling the book, The Fault in Our Stars, Green emphasizes his point that cancer is a purposeless disease that chooses its victims with no rhyme or reason. I LOVE the title.

I also love the allusion to Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” for a similar reason:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day

Nothing gold can stay. –Robert Frost

 

Again Green highlights the fact that everything is temporary, especially what is most beautiful, but that only makes us appreciate it more. Because this line is also associated with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which would be familiar to most teens, I think Green means to bring in the totality of meaning that S.E. Hinton intended in her novel. Hazel Grace and Augustus, like Pony Boy in The Outsiders, need to “Stay gold” even though they are losing their innocence while facing a cruel world.

The hamster in Hazel Grace and Augustus’s favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction (the meaning of this title is self-explanatory), is named Sisyphus. Sisyphus is an obvious allusion to the mythological Sisyphus who was required to roll a boulder up a hill over and over, just to watch it roll down again. Albert Camus’s essay, Myth of Sisyphus, uses Sisyphus as an example to put forth his philosophy of the Absurd. Camus tells of Sisyphus’s meaningless task to show how humans search for meaning where there is none. According to Camus, Sisyphus was happy because, to him, this meaningless activity had meaning. In other words, humans create our own meaning (Existentialism) and this quest to find meaning in meaningless things gives people meaning. Hazel Grace and Augustus realize this; they see the absurdity of the world. They don’t try to explain their illnesses or find meaning in it. It just sucks. They are not comforted by platitudes, even though Augustus commonly creates his own in his lengthy monologues; however, they do grudgingly accept the value in them to those who will be left behind.

Finally, I think it was pure brilliance to include the allusions to Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This most beautifully rhythmic and meaningful poem is a Modernist work, which by definition is cynical, self-reflective, and anti-traditional. Augustus is afraid to become Prufrock. Prufrock is fading into oblivion, not from disease, but from age. Nevertheless there are many similarities between Augustus and Prufrock. Prufrock has desires, but sees himself and his life as unremarkable, too unremarkable to reach out for the love for which he longs and has let slip away throughout his life. He is too careful, too reserved, a minor character–“no Prince Hamlet.” He asks the big questions, but is afraid to find the answer to his “overwhelming question.” At one point he asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” (This blog is named for this poem, in case you didn’t know.) Augustus wants to disturb the universe, needs to disturb the universe before he goes. His biggest fear is being like Prufrock, letting love slip away, life slip away, unnoticed, unremarkable, and for no heroic reason. One of the first lines Hazel quotes shows the bleak reality of life and the emptiness of searching for significance where there is none: “Let us go through certain half-deserted streets,/ The muttering retreats/ Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:/ Streets that follow like a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question . . ./ Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’/ Let us go and make our visit” (Eliot, quoted from Green, p. 153). It is relevant that Augustus’s response to her delivering this quote is: “I’m in love with you” (p. 153). Augustus sees in Hazel a soul-mate, who recognizes the futility of asking that question. This book made it in to my top ten favorite books right then and there.

I love this book because it is the kind of book that makes me reconsider, makes me contemplate the big questions, and then encourages me to put all that aside and just live fully. It encourages me, but like Prufrock, I am constantly led to ask that question. Nevertheless, this is the kind of book that stays with me, but if it fades, I will read it again and again. It occurred to me that this book is saying the opposite of the providential message of The Goldfinch, which I also found extremely profound. Truthfully, I’ll never stop looking for answers, but it is important to be reminded to live in the spaces between questions.

So, I really don’t care if it isn’t probable that two brilliant cancer patients like Hazel Grace and Augustus would have their stars cross in real life because there are truths more important than how large the vocabulary of the average teenager is likely to be. Truths like cancer sucks, bad things happen for no reason, and life is a gift to be lived and cherished every minute without fear because no one is promised tomorrow, and we don’t have to figure it all out; we just get to live it. 5 out of 5 stars.–Christina Knowles

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

17333223Finally– I finally finished the 771 page novel that is The Goldfinch.  I have never taken so long to finish a book before. Not just because this book was soooo long. I have read many long books, but this book had to be read slowly, absorbed. I do admit that it was not really a page-turner. This is an understatement. In fact, every time I had to put it down, I had no trouble at all. I actually looked forward to putting it down and had a hard time picking it back up. It’s not that it was a bad book, or even boring.  Actually, I found it very profound and am glad I read it. But let me start at the beginning.

This book is about a boy named Theo with an absent and alcoholic father and a loving mother, who is trying to raise him on her own.  While visiting an art museum, he and his mother get caught in a terrorist bombing. His mother is killed, he survives, and through a series of seemingly providential events, he meets an old man and his grand-daughter, steals a famous small painting called “The Goldfinch” in a confused and concussed stupor, and manages to find his way out of the carnage unnoticed in the chaos.

Theo experiences and suffers numerous things in the proceeding years, but always manages to hold on to the painting, maniacally attached to the famous and priceless work of art. He soon realizes what he’s done, but is both unwilling and afraid to give it up. The rest of the very lengthy book chronicles his life, living with post-traumatic stress, guilt, and fear, recording one bad decision after another in an almost ridiculous hyperbole.

As a reader I became somewhat fond of Theo, but who wouldn’t be after spending 771 pages with him? Still, after 771 pages, I would think I would be more attached to him. The characterization in this story is all right, but nothing to really speak of. The prose are eloquent, the descriptions striking and pictorial. The plot is wonderful. So what’s wrong with this book? Why did I look forward to putting it down and dread picking it up? Is it bleak, disheartening, cynical? Yes, as a matter of fact, it is, but that’s not it either. This book is dragged down with the weight of details, details, details. Endless details. I swear that this author takes thirty pages to say what most people could say in five. And I’m sorry; I don’t care how beautifully it is said, there comes a time when you just have to get to the point. Sometimes I would find myself dying to find out how something turned out or what someone said, but by the time five, ten, or fifteen pages went by, I would forget what it was I was waiting for. I was tempted over and over again to skim it, but a force seemed to hold me back, telling me that in all these details there had to be a purpose, a message that I was sure to miss if I half-heartedly scanned the pages.

It finally came. I must say the profundity of the last thirty pages made enduring the whole over-written story worth the reading. But even the ending was at least fifteen pages too long. When I finally achieved the nirvana of the story’s thematic message, I floated on this cloud for only a page or two when the repetitive, albeit beautiful, drone numbed my mind once again.

Still I marvel at the incredible perspicacity of Tartt. She paints this crazy, chaotic, hyperbolic story with its deeply flawed and sometimes unlikable protagonist, into an Impressionistic masterpiece that can only be fully understood as one backs up and takes in the whole picture, the whole really long, laboriously large picture. (Forgive the “artsy” metaphor-no pun intended.) And the irony of the depressing events Theo endures finally coming to a usable point through the philosophical ruminations of Theo’s drug-addled, abused, trouble-attracting, poor-decision-making childhood friend, Boris, was just superb. In one sublime page, the entire seemingly pointless suffering all seems to make sense. The book should have ended there, but no, Tartt needs to go on and on and on, almost condescendingly assuming that we didn’t quite “get it” yet. The book could easily have been done, and done well, in my humble opinion, in half the pages. One must ask, “What was her editor thinking?” Isn’t it the editor’s job to demand cuts where extraneous material invades? I can only assume that her editor must have been infatuated with Tartt’s beautifully descriptive and intelligent writing style.

The Goldfinch evokes such ambivalence in me that I still don’t know if I liked it or not. I will say this: I am so grateful that I read it, but I will never be reading it again. I am giving it 4 out 5 stars–5 stars for its deeply meaningful insight, but subtracting one for making me suffer so long to receive it.–Christina Knowles

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