Although his brother Hank might argue that the real "fault in our stars" is that our sun contains limited amounts of hydrogen, which will cause it to eventually run out of the only fuel source capable of supporting its mass against gravity, thereby expanding until its outer shell envelops our tiny planet and consumes it in a fiery death, I think it is more likely that John Green's title refers to a line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:
"The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings." Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)
What does this quote mean and how does it relate to a novel about two kids dying of cancer? I'll explore that below.
The Fault in Our Stars is the story of two 16-year-olds who meet at a cancer support group. Hazel Lancaster, the narrator, is afflicted with terminal thyroid cancer which has ravaged her lungs enough to necessitate the use of an oxygen tank wherever she goes. It is during a support meeting that she is introduced to Augustus Waters, whose leg was claimed by a malignant bone tumor and who soon becomes the object of her affection.
When I learned of the plot of this novel, I was initially a bit turned off. I'm reminded of a comment a friend made when I asked her if she wanted to go see the movie 50/50, upon which she exclaimed "who wants to go see a movie about people dying of cancer?" I couldn't come up with a satisfactory response, and we settled for a two-hour movie about the competitive world of robot fighting (which still caused me to shed a tear). So why would anyone, especially young adults, want to read about "cancer kids?" As Hazel herself states in the novel, "cancer books suck." But "The Fault in Our Stars" isn't about cancer, and it's not about death. Cancer is an important subject in the book, but it's not nearly as important as the characters. The disease is mainly used as a vehicle for moving along the development of Hazel and Augustus. In the absence of teen wizards, dystopian death races, and swooning vampire/werewolf feuds, it allows us to view the protagonists in a more complex setting than the traditional high school drama. It also forces the characters to grow up much faster than they should, which I think is important for Green's audience as well as his needs as a writer. The "young adult" label should not be cause for dismissal to older audiences. As equally evident in his previous novels, Green's writing is not dumbed-down in an attempt to cater to a misguided adult notion of the intelligence of teenagers. While Hazel and Augustus certainly share in the same adolescent interests as many of their peers, their dialogue is written at a level that betrays a deeper level of maturity. Amidst trips to the mall and countless video game sessions, the characters expound on subjects in life that everyone faces. While it might seem strange to hear a 16-year-old use words like "cloying" and "sobriquet," this is par for the course in a John Green novel. And strangely, it works very well (provided you keep a dictionary handy). Even though I initially balked at reading a "young adult" title (I'm well into adulthood), I realized that just because a book is marketed toward adolescents, doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed by those outside that niche. I'm hesitant to make the comparison, but "The Fault in our Stars" bridges the age gap in the same vein as Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. It contains content and themes thoroughly relatable to a young audience, while being presented in a way that adults will appreciate.
Green's characters always come off a bit stiff to me and start off sounding like pretentious jerks who are trying too hard to grow up, but I always warm up to them and end up relating to them by the middle of the novel. Gus was no exception. However my opinion of him changed as early as chapter 2, and I knew as soon as I heard him have a conversation with Hazel about their counselor's incorrect usage of the word "literally" (a fact that had literally been bothering me since it was mentioned in the first chapter) that I knew we could be friends. The likeability factor of these characters is one of the reasons the rest of the story can be so heartbreaking to follow at times. Even though I was fully aware from the beginning that Hazel's condition is terminal, she doesn't behave in a way that constantly reminds me of that fact. Instead, her sarcastic wit and outlook on life draw me to her as someone I could easily be friends with (if only there wasn't that problem of her being a fictional character). From very early on, I'm sucked into an emotional attachment to the characters in the story that made it very difficult to actually put the book down (and one of the reasons I will probably read it several more times). Returning to the titular quote above, although it is fully explained in the novel, I think the line from Julius Caesar is also appropriate as a title because Hazel does not let her ultimate fate determine the course of her life.
I thought Green's last two solo books, Katherines and Paper Towns, were pretty good, but they didn't capture that sense of awe I felt after finishing his first novel. And again, I think that's because I've seen such a huge change over the years in Green's ability to connect his characters to the reader. The Fault in our Stars returns me to that era and I'm reminded of just how good of a writer he is. I do not know if it will win the same Young Adult Fiction awards Alaska received, but I do know it will be regarded by myself and many more as one of, if not his best work to date. Regardless of their literary interests, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of great writing and character-driven stories.
It should also be mentioned that Green personally signed all 150,000 copies of the first printing of this novel. So if you are buying it soon after release, your copy will almost certainly be autographed.
John Green's other novels include:
Looking for Alaska (2005)
An Abundance of Katherines (2006)
Paper Towns (2008)
Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances (coauthored - 2010)
Will Grayson, Will Grayson (coauthored - 2010)