Tag Archives: john green

The Fault in Our Stars: Crying in Public

PrintAlmost any list you read of “the best” Young Adult Fiction will list John Green’s *The Fault in Our Stars*. It’s an incredibly popular book, in no small part, I think, because the tragedy promises (and delivers) the cathartic release. For me that meant loud, wet crying in the pub where I read at lunch.

It reminded me a lot of Looking for Alaska in its exploration of questions of what makes for a meaningful life, what happens after death and how do we – the living – make sense of both.

I have to say that while I had a strong emotional reaction to *The Fault in Our Stars* I didn’t find it the most compelling YAF I’ve ever read, nor did I find its response to these questions – what’s the point of living/dying? – particularly insightful or moving. Whereas *Looking for Alaska* presented a fresh (and momentarily comforting) proposition of why we might live and what happens when we die, in *The Fault in Our Stars* the response is something akin to “tragedy” – like “It’s tragic when people die because they don’t get to keep living and making meaning.” I think one way TFIOS gestures towards the complexity (to put it lightly) of life and death is in thinking about how big or small the impact of one life can be and the resonance of that solitary soul on those that encounter it. One line by Hazel’s father drove this home for me – he’s explaining to her why her life/death matters to him by observing that it’s “an extraordinary privilege to love you.” I think this is the closest the book gets to a unique exploration of the thematic questions. By gesturing to the impact of the single (lost) life on those who continue living, to the privilege and responsibility of loving, mourning and remembering one another, *The Fault in Our Stars* sees the potential of relationships – connections with other people – for being the reason for living and the solace for dying. But it’s a grabbing, reaching kind of answer. The novel gets overly caught up in the emotional manipulation of the graveside scene at the expense of a deeper exploration of these questions.

Which is not to say there isn’t good work being done in the novel. I was struck by its exploration of the guilt felt by those who live particularly in the character of Hazel’s mother (rather than van Houten who seems too obvious a caricature of the grieved parent) who embodies the balance or the dialectic between grief/loss and a will to keep making meaning. I appreciated the tension in the relationship between Hazel and Gus between humour and suffering, the calm humanity each expresses to the other in moments of humiliation and suffering. The love of the two for one another is believable, if perhaps in the Romeo and Juliette (and often compared couple to these two) believability of those swept up in circumstances and passion (rather than a love that you might believe endures through mortgages and menopause).

All this to say I was certainly moved by the story – if my gross crying is to be believed – but I didn’t (after all) like it all that much. I especially don’t think it belongs at the top of the YAF must read lists – many other books look at these questions in fresher, truer ways. But sure, it’s still wildly popular. In fact, I bumped into a twelve year old girl in line at my local bookshop  and recommended not reading the ending in public and she told me “she’d be careful.” I hope as readers we’re all careful. Careful not to let our emotional reaction be mistaken for brilliant writing.

 

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Looking for Alaska: Making Meaning *You Should

On the prompting of my childhood/adolescent/lifelong friend, J., I’m testing out a new way of starting reviews. At dinner last night she told me that she skimmed my reviews as quickly as possible to find out whether the book was worth reading, without spoiling the read itself (it’s true I’m prone to spoilers). She asked whether I might include some kind of rating system in the first paragraph to alert would-be readers to the urgency, necessity or avoidance of a particular read. Less keen on the scale of 1-10 model, she suggested something like “must,” “maybe” and “don’t.” So I’ll try it out and you can let me know what you think. I think 3 choices is a bit limiting, so I’ll go with five: Urgent Priority to Read (5), You Should (4) If You’re So Inclined (3) You Shouldn’t (2), Priority to Avoid (1).

For John Green’s *Looking for Alaska* I’ll offer a “You Should” rating.

And now for the proper review:

My high school Philosophy teacher, Mr. M, approached the existential philosophers with a certain (albeit appropriate) skepticism. He suggested that the existential questions, while worth considering, were most often ignored by “the masses” or easily solved by “making meaning” (given that life has no inherent meaning to an existentialist) in one of two ways: creation or destruction. He fingered all of us in the room and urged us to consider how we might make our own meaning. I (obviously) still remember this lesson and often reflect on whether my desires to have babies or write a novel are borne more out of panicked impulse to make my life count for something than from any intrinsic desire to have a [baby] [novel] [marathon completion]. 

John Green’s *Looking for Alaska* has its own Mr. M in the form of the curmudgeonly Religion teacher who pushes his students to think beyond memorizing names or dates and to think instead about the implications of religious questions in their everyday lives. But more than a teacher figure, the text asks and answers the same question: What can we expect out of life? What makes life meaningful? What responsibility/authority do we have to make our lives worth living? 

These questions are explored against the usual drama of teenagers at boarding school: pranks, lust, foreign exchange students and too much calculus. Think John Knowle’s A Separate Peace rewritten for 2006 and with a massive online cult following. 

It’s a brilliant book not for any particular innovations in plot – that much is pretty staid – but for its novel answer to the question of what makes life meaningful? I won’t do too much spoiling in giving the answer, but the novel took my usual atheist angst about my inevitable death and consumption by worms and brought to it a fresh and even (gasp) hopeful promise about why life (and death) might be meaningful.

And for the intended teenage audience I imagine these questions and the answers presented in *Looking for Alaska* are ever more urgent. That the novel does not gloss or diminish the poignancy and “reality” of these questions for an adolescent audience seems at once both respectful of its readers intellect, but also of its readers complex emotional life. I appreciate that much young adult fiction – including that which I read when I was myself a teen – doesn’t shy away from the difficult, confusing and overwhelming. But this book more than many others I’ve read presents these questions as *actual questions* and sees the problem of answering them as one that all people – not just young people – have to muddle their way about answering. I guess it offers the reader some responsibility, too, to sort out for him/herself what the answer might be. 

And so because this is a book that asks difficult questions and presents compelling – and fresh! – answers, and because it gives funny/smart/round characters a chance to grapple with these questions/answers, and because it’s set at a boarding school and who can resist a good boarding school story (hello Harry Potter fans) I’ll give this book its (4) You Should rating. Go read it. You Should for the book’s sake and because it will help you look/be hip and cool with the teenage crowd (so hot right now). 

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