Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has a “long-settled satellite colony” sitting in her lungs, and is swimming in clinical depression as she sits in the Literal Heart of Jesus for weekly Support Group meetings. You might be too if you were dying of Stage IV cancer, with no possibility of a cure.

Hazel goes to Support Group meetings to appease her mother, because the only thing worse than dying of cancer is having a child die of cancer. There, however, she meets "hot" Augustus Waters, a 17-year-old who survived cancer, although his leg did not. Augustus keeps unlit cigarettes in his mouth as a metaphorical reference, and Hazel is wise beyond her years, and so the two quickly connect.

Their bond is strengthened by a shared love of Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten (an imaginary novel, but one that has gained a following nonetheless). The novel, which follows cancer patient Anna, her mother, and the Dutch Tulip Man who may or may not be a con artist, as they seek experimental treatment for Anna’s terminal illness, ends abruptly with just the letter a, implying that Anna died mid-sentence, and in the middle of her life. Hazel has spent many years wondering what happened to Anna’s mother and the Dutch Tulip Man (as well as Anna’s hamster), but letters to the author have gone unanswered. Augustus, however, manages to get in touch with the author, who promises to tell them what happens to the characters in the novel if they come to Amsterdam. So Augustus gives Hazel an incredible gift: he uses his Wish to take her to Amsterdam to speak with the author and finally get the answers she needs. Just before they leave, however, Hazel suffers a setback that threatens everything.

The Fault in Our Stars is a truly wonderful read for teens and adults alike. Author and vlogger John Green expertly weaves a tale that is about life and death, and the little infinity in between the two. Though his characters are certainly more articulate than any 16 and 17-year-olds I know, they were deep, well-developed characters that made you laugh, cry, and fall in love in a way few fictional beings can.

Green cleverly weaves other literary references throughout the story, paying particular attention to Julius Caesar, in which Cassius so famously says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves,” which of course is mirrored in the title of the novel. There could actually be several interesting classroom tie-ins to Shakespeare in teaching this novel.

The novel also provides an opportunity for great classroom discussion. Its themes include love, identity, faith, mortality, life and existence. One of the major themes within the book is the idea of one’s purpose in life, and how important it is to leave a mark and be an extraordinary person. As an English teacher looking for books that open students’ minds and engage them in thoughtful conversation, I need look no further than The Fault in Our Stars.

The novel would probably best be appreciated by high school students, though some of the language in the book may be a bit tricky for younger students (grades 9-10), who should be able to use surrounding textual clues to figure out what some of the difficult vocabulary words mean. The book does contain sexual themes and profanity, but neither is excessive (thinking back, I can only recall two swear words). Students may need to do some pre-reading activities to help them understand how cancer affects the body, and some of the terms used during the novel, including, but not limited to osteosarcoma, mets, and cannula. Because cancer is the basis for the novel, I actually think this book would do very well in a health or biology classroom as well. Teachers in those areas could easily provide lessons on the medical aspects of cancer, whereas the book compliments those lessons with the human and emotion side.

As an aside, casting has just started for a movie version of this book, starring Shailene Woodley. There is also a beautiful fan rendition of Augustus’ final letter to Van Houten here.


Nickolas Armstrong said...

First off, I think that this review is incredibly well written. You gave enough of the plot to secure my interest, but not enough to make me feel as though I don't need to read it. This book sounds very interesting, I definitely would have enjoyed reading it when I was a teenager. I think there is a lot to be learned from human grieving, and dying, I think reading about it can really put certain things into perspective. This book sounds like it is full of substance and characters worth connecting with.

Sean Andrew said...

I would like to commend you, Leslie, on your well-written review on this book. I recently bought a few John Green novels to read over the summer and this was one of them. I have always wanted to see someone do a review like this and it was achieved. You have captivated me and have made me want to read the novel.

Now, I love the points you made about it being a versatile book. I rarely think about using books in other classes, but only in an English setting. Proving me wrong here with this book, and now remembering back to some of our blended lessons in History and English back in middle school, I can now see this point.

Tom Philion said...



JessicaGeelen said...

Like everyone else said, excellent review, Leslie!
I have this book sitting on a side table in my living room to read as soon as finals are over and based on your review, I think I'm definitely going to love it.

I like that you pointed out all the different uses for this book. I love the idea of using fiction in other classes.