The fault in our stars: why is it that the complex books are now written for teenagers?

The fault in our stars coverThe fault in our stars is not about cancer, although the lead characters meet in a cancer support group. It’s a book about dealing with the universe’s lack of empathy. It does have a sweet romance, and some tragic parts in it, because fate is conspiring against the lovers. I don’t consider that a spoiler given the title, but I don’t think it’s about either of those things. I don’t want you to think from this review that it’s a book of literary fiction, although it does stray into metafiction at times.

In these reviews, we like to list appeal factors, and then suggest readers who might find this book suits their taste. TFiOS is a little tricky here, because its author has worked hard to defy conventions and that means I need to be careful not to sucker punch the readers I advise to try the book. Yes, it’s a sweet romance, but if you go into it looking for that, then the end is going to crush you like an elephant stomping on a pixie. Yes, it’s kind of existential, but if you go in looking for realism, you won’t find that either, because the characters and author are devoted to metaphor. I’d like to try to work through why this book was excellent to me, and hopefully the appeal factors will emerge.

  • The characters are vivid, and realistic in the sense that they are not paragons of a trope. They even make this point themselves in their conversations, which is where some of the metafiction slides in. Hazel is not a Dickensian broken angel, and Augustus is not a manic pixie dream boy, although it initially looks like they might be.
  • The characters have solid arcs. No lead character comes out of the book the same as they started. Everyone’s defining beliefs get a thorough battering.
  • The description of places, and the subtle touches of poetry, don’t feel intrusive.
  • The author is trying to say something more meaningful than what we see in a lot of genre fiction. Many books go beyond “Wouldn’t marrying a duke be nice?” but they often go to quite a safe place after that. Murderers are caught. Stories end in marriages. Protagonists who devote themselves obsessively to an ideal eventually win and are lauded. This isn’t that sort of book. Partway through, it reminded of me most of Morte d’Arthur, because in a sense that is a book about the value of falling short of the heroic ideal.
  • This book has a heap of awards, and not just in the teen genre, which is kind of literary ghetto, but from mainstream adult sources. It’s odd that so many books for teens are excellent now. I know Alan Moore recently did an interview in which he suggested this sort of thing (adult media being dominated by characters designed for children) showed our culture was infantile, but I’d go the other way, and see it as a very hopeful thing that teenagers love complexity in their reading material.

The author, John Green, suggests that the way to get your friends to read the book is to tell them that if they read it, but don’t like it, they get to punch you hard in the stomach.  I choose not to make this offer to book coasters readers. As a final pitch instead, I’m going to link to the trailer for the film.  I don’t think the trailer sells the core experience of the book, but I understand why they went the way they did, because it would be spoilery to go the other way.

I loved this book. This is going to be the first teen book added to Hot Reads and our book club kits, and when that happens I’ll come back and link in the support documents. Currently we only have our book club discussion questions prepared. At the moment the Library Service has the book and MP3 CD versions.