Linking up with Jessica at Housewifespice!
I first have to say that I am so glad Steven Greydanus did not hate the movie version—in fact, he recommended it with reservations (which I’ll get to). A Catholic being in the world, and striving not to be of it is quite a liminal place to be. I sometimes find a tension in knowing what makes something critically good and how particularly well-executed techniques can achieve a pleasurable, satisfying reading (or viewing) experience and knowing that certain plot points or opinions expressed by fictional characters are contrary to Catholic teaching. Sometimes I am fearful to laud a secular work because its mere portrayal of human behavior in all its glory and sinfulness could be considered scandalous. And sometimes I am fearful to criticize that which is faith-based when no matter how earnest or Catholic-positive its core message, if it fails from a critical standpoint (pacing, character development, dialogue, etc.), then my negative review could be seen as stymieing the efforts of earnestly made faithful media. (So don’t expect a review of Mom’s Night Out from me any time soon—it triggers my inner rage machine.). But back to the point of this post, which is to review this beautiful novel by John Green. Hearing that another Catholic sees the Good in this fiction as enough to temper that which is imperfect just makes me supremely happy and I wanted to share that with y’all.
In the Fault in Our Stars, my most favorite John Green novel of all-time—yes, above his Printz winner Looking for Alaska and the Printz honor that I also adore, An Abundance of Katherines—16-year-old Hazel is living out a life with thyroid cancer that’s metastasized to her lungs. One fateful day, to appease her mother, she attends a cancer-survivor support group and meets Augustus Waters, a hunky, witty, provoking-in-a-good way survivor of bone cancer. A tender, sweet, amusing, totally unbelievable but won’t-knock-it-it’s-so-dang-precious romance begins. A hardened cynic—with good reason—Hazel is challenged by this relationship because the threat of death looms too large.
Wow can Mr. Green write. I am insanely jealous. In this book in particular, he has a plethora of incredible lines. Champagne is totally bottled stars. There really are boys who make your “skin feel like skin” and that is really just the perfect way to describe the sensation of sitting near an attractive boy who finds you attractive.
This book also boasts excellent characterization. Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac are richly drawn and unique. A Simmons classmate of mine once pointed out that Mr. Green has written the same girl character twice (Alaska __ and Margo Roth Spiegleman in Paper Towns), and virtually every male narrator in his previous novels (he has some short stories with diverse leads) feels like an iteration of his predecessor. But Hazel, his first female narrator of a novel, is her own person. Augustus is his own person.
As Mr. Greydanus points out in his review of the movie (and three cheers for a movie reviewer who has actually read and comprehended the book the movie is adapted from), The Fault in Our Stars is not your average weepy rom-com (though you may weep, it is romantic, and is comedic at times), nor frivolous fluffy reading for teens (and grown-ups, too). The novel gets at some pretty heady themes. Hazel is pretty cynical about death and suffering and the point of it all and what happens when you do die (spoiler: nothing). Augustus balances her negative worldview by believing that living is Important, and dying can be Important—especially if you sacrifice yourself for something Important and he does believe in Something (just not the fantasy trope of Heaven as being clouds) and helps Hazel realize there is a point to it all.
Because the appeal of one voice over another is subjective, I will mention some readers might not like Hazel’s harder side or Augustus’s no-teen-boy-heck-no-grown-man-actually-talks-like-this-but-God-don’t-we-wish-they-and-their-older-brothers-did incredible dialogue. This line from the movie review sums it up perfectly: “If he’s almost too good to be true, at least he approximates an ideal actually worth idealizing, as opposed to icky literary heartthrobs like Edward Cullen and Christian Grey.” [THANK YOU]. I lapped up Augustus’s sweet nothings like it was the finest Champagne in the restaurant.
The Catholic: In the movie review, Mr. Greydanus points out that aside from a kinda scandalous allusion to teen fornication, the biggest issue is how the film leans more heavily toward a nihilistic viewpoint, whereas the book has a more balanced examination of the meaning of life and the matter of an afterlife. Here is where some moms might get scared of me, but please don’t click that little x in the corner—I believe it can be okay for teens to read books that portray kids like themselves questioning and exploring these big issues. I totally get that parents have to be cautious when it comes to permitting your child to read a book that advocates (note the deliberate word choice) thought and actions contrary to Catholic teaching. Adolescents are in a liminal place, too. They like to test boundaries, but crave structure. They can be so on fire for God after an amazing retreat or mission trip, but when confronted with mortality or pain or first experience of desolation will hear those questions of “Is this really what I believe?”. And that’s where Hazel is coming from—a whole lifetime of having no capacity or language or support with which to really understand or embrace a consistently joyous affirmation of a Heaven. What I also believe is It is important to talk with teens about what they are reading, and if they cannot critically engage with material that portrays values/actions contrary to their own, then it is okay to tell them not yet. Okay? Okay.
Aside from Hazel’s beliefs not being something you want your kid to believe—and in the book, it doesn’t come off as attractive—there is some occasional cursing, light underage drinking, and some teen dialogue that your kid has probably heard in school hallways, sports locker rooms, or on TV. What is important for you to know is that Mr. Green doesn’t glorify these actions in his writing.
It may lift the hearts of Catholic parents and guardians that Mr. Green has written a healthy, positive portrayal of two married, committed, loving husband and wife heads of the family who had an all-of-those-above-adjectives relationship with their daughter and son. Too often you see books (check out some of my recent secular kidlit reviews) that unnecessarily emphasize broken, unhealthy family relationships. So it was a treat.
Bottom line: Forgive this book’s teen sex and prepare for age appropriate discussions on the complexities of contemplating the meaning of life and afterlife, and you’ve got a read that will make your heart soar, then sore, then filled.