Almost 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.