I have to admit that the The Fault in Our Stars was staring at me for months – I’d been avoiding reading it until the review date loomed. You see, I had read an extremely depressing Irish childhood novel over the summer and, knowing this book was about cancer, felt emotionally unable to face another tragedy. Forcing myself to open the covers, however, after less than three pages, I was hooked. It’s an unputdownable roller coaster – be prepared!
The beginning of the book draws you in, not only because of the quirky characters, but also by the exhilarating use of the English language. It is a superbly written piece of work. The characters have all the essentials to allure you: they are smart, witty and humorous. You’ll fall in love with them, and quickly begin to share their combined happiness and grief. Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who are deeply in love and both victims of that dreadful disease – cancer. They meet at a support group and their incredible love story unfolds in every page. The importance of the group, though treated with disdain by those that attend, is shown to be a life line to those with cancer, as the ability to relate to peers without debilitating illness is compromised. The group features strongly throughout the book; even the roll call of losses at the end gets repeated. Despite this, the essence of the characters is not that they are dying of cancer – it is really about how they cope with the inimitable chore of living with it.
Obsessed with a book called An Imperial Affliction, Hazel desperately seeks to know the ending to what she feels is an incomplete novel by reclusive Dutch author Peter van Houten. Her quest leads her and Gus on an adventure to Amsterdam, a city described in such a wondrous manner it surely serves as a boost to the Dutch tourist industry! The cliché – you should never meet your hero – rings through for Hazel as van Houten turns out to be less than average and definitely not hero material. However, the happiness of being together outweighs any discontent caused by their horrible meeting with van Houten. The journey of their lives continues and we experience the romance and the bravery of both teenagers, a journey which is horrifyingly sad but ultimately beautiful. They experience in their short lives what many people do not experience in an entire life time – the ability to appreciate the beauty they have found together and an insight into the meaning of their very existences.
As one turns the pages, the world from a cancer patients’ viewpoint unfurls; issues such as travelling with cancer, hospital visits, coping with loss and public perception unfold. One of the most heart rending elements of the book is the strength that the teenagers show as they try to smile in order to protect those they love. As we are shown their ability to see life from others’ perspectives, despite their suffering, we gain an insight and understanding of how cancer touches not just the victim but all those who love them.
The book title is taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The book continues in this strong philosophical vein in which the characters discuss the meaning of life, death and illness in a vast universe in which religion plays no part for Hazel and Gus.
One has to be struck by the compassion of all characters; almost everyone in this book exudes the best essence of humanity. Perhaps this is why I have heard the book described as ‘cheesy’ and ‘not real’. Cheesy or not cheesy, you will come to love, respect, and admire the parents in particular as they practise ‘mindfulness’ every day, laughing as much as possible with their children, knowing that their time together is limited. The only character that is not appealing is the selfish alcoholic van Houten, who we discover carries cancer scars also, although still not endearing him to the reader. Despite his chronic alcoholic egoism, even he too had reached heights of greatness, in his previous life as an author.
And yes – the end of the book is infinitely sad, but the beauty and inspiration of humanity shines through and you will feel in the better for reading it… It may even restore your faith in human kind! A perfect antidote for a depressing Irish childhood novel!
(c) Carina McNally
Order your copy online here.