The premise of John Green’s megahit young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars is a simple one: a love story about two teenage cancer patients. This is a good and relatively original premise. I approve. To make it work will be difficult, though. To write about the life of a teenager, and the tumultuous nature of teenage love, is difficult enough without adding cancer to the mix. To make this premise work, Green must confront the unavoidable fact that sick people feel very, very bad most of the time. It’s not conducive to romance.
The easiest solution to this problem is to sweep the experience of sickness under the rug, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Green does. Sickness is window dressing in this story. The primary function of cancer in this story is to grant travel via the Make-a-Wish Foundation and to incapacitate characters when required by the plot. When the plot needs the characters to not be sick, they are conveniently not sick until the plot needs them to be sick again. It’s a depressingly shallow understanding of the experience of illness, and Green sells his characters short by not making better use of the storytelling opportunities afforded here.
This is not to imply, however, that the characters are anything special. Hazel, our protagonist and narrator, has fewer memorable traits than R2-D2. Her sole interests at the outset are America’s Next Top Model and the fictional book An Imperial Affliction, with which she has a decidedly unhealthy obsession. She’s depicted as being smart, but doesn’t appear to be well-read or experienced. Gus, her star-crossed love interest, is little more than Hazel’s male clone. He is likewise intelligent (despite reading nothing but video game novelizations), and the only perceptible difference between his personality and Hazel’s is that he tends to speak in contrived pseudo-philosophical witticisms. The supporting cast is no better; they’re all painted with big vague brush strokes and their involvement in the central story is marginal at best.
The plot itself follows a very meandering path. There are few writers who know how to write a developing relationship with any degree of plausibility, and Green is not one of them. Hazel and Gus are in love pretty much from the moment they meet, and their relationship never really changes. As such there’s not a whole lot for the characters to do, so Green sends them on an excursion to meet the author of An Imperial Affliction, a subplot which concludes near the book’s midpoint and serves little apparent function. (It also allows for the book to have an extremely distasteful scene involving the happy couple making out in the Anne Frank House, which I am at a complete loss to explain. Hazel at least has the self-awareness to acknowledge the insensitivity of the scene, but Green for whatever reason sees fit to include it anyway.) Once that trip is over, the rest of the book consists of 1) characters babbling about bargain-basement philosophy and 2) cancer working its soap-opera magic. The book is billed as being a thought-provoking tear-jerker, but its ideas are pretentious and unsophisticated, and its attempts at emotional manipulation are cheap.
The Fault in Our Stars is a book that badly wants to be original and mature but doesn’t succeed at either. Its depiction of cancer is so unrealistic as to be downright insulting and its romance is predictable and formulaic. Not only does the book fail to live up to its monumental hype, it fails even to rise to its own potential. It’s not profound or groundbreaking. It’s just a shallow little book that wants to make you cry.