You know one of the worst reading experiences, one I have only recently discovered? Being old enough to need reading glasses and reading a YA novel the last third of which has me fairly continually in tears. Yes, I am talking about the latest YA phenomenon, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.
Critics have raved about this novel, calling it the salvation of YA literature, and to his great credit, the author denies that 1) YA needs saving and 2) that his book would be the one to do so. Good for him. The Fault in Our Stars is spectacular, I must admit, and tear-jerking in a way that is neither excessive (despite my previous comments) nor maudlin. He strikes an excellent balance amongst humour, pathos, and honest reflection on the world as presented by two intellectually precocious teens. Hazel’s language and awareness sometimes sit uneasily—notably her internal reflection and discussions with Augustus placed beside her conversation with Peter Van Houten—but that fades beside an existential awareness far beyond that of her peers.
It would be difficult for a narrative to support this existential non-angst were it not for the relatively unique positions Augustus and Hazel find themselves in: a cancer “survivor” and a terminal cancer “victim,” both of whom transcend the labels society casts upon them to establish a love that is both compassionate and emotionally mature. I can’t go into the plot without creating spoilers, which in some cases is not a problem, but would be for The Fault in Our Stars. Suffice it to say that the plot itself is not the driving force behind the narrative; it is somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the power of the novel.
I can see why the YA world is aflame with admiration for this novel: it is perhaps to our generation what books like Stephen Chbosky’s recently revived Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)—or even earlier, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) or Judy Blume’s Forever (1975)—were in their cultural moments. This not to equate these novels in terms of literary endeavours or accomplishments, but only to say that they all speak to the ethos of their times in some important ways. But like the earlier works, The Fault in Our Stars is, as John Green himself says, only one of “more than a thousand books … read by at least ten thousand teenagers a year.” So many of these novels have so much to say; they all work together to (in John Green’s metaphor) fill our world’s YA bookshelves.
I did think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I began reading The Fault in Our Stars, which struck me as odd, because my response to novels is not generally to be reminded of another… hence my previous comments. By the end of the novel, though, I was struck by yet another comparison, however actually erroneous. The only other novel I have recently read that both forced tears and yet filled me with great joy is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012). I am, as I have said, old enough that these novels are not being written to resonate with me as a reader, yet they carry such emotional truths, presented through such beautifully crafted characters, that no one—adolescent, adult, or anyone in between—can help but respond. I’ll stop gushing now, and let you run off and read The Fault in Our Stars, or Aristotle and Dante, or any other of the myriad exceptional YA novels being produced these days…