In a famous monologue from Neal Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, the character Eugene begins a description of his unique family dynamic by mentioning that his Uncle Dave had died of cancer six years earlier. Except that the grownups would never say it outright, just in hushed whispers, so Eugene points out the superstitious absurdity in their thinking, as if God, upon hearing them say the word, would smite them with the same dreaded disease in recompense of their boldness.
Eugene’s lament bears special significance for me. When I was a junior in high school, my theater class put together a variety show, featuring a full line-up of scenes, sketches, and songs revolving around a central theme of family. A friend of mine was to perform the aforementioned monologue, which would not have been a problem except that my at-the-time 26-year old brother, Christopher, had been diagnosed with tongue cancer only days before, and he would be coming to the show. My parents and I were worried that the scene from Brighton would serve as salt in a fresh wound and that maybe it was too soon to joke about something from a work of fiction that, for us, felt anything but fictional. My brother’s disease would consume our family over the next two years and ultimately bring an end to his all-too-short story—our lives irreversibly altered.
I mention all this to place you firmly in the context in which I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. To be clear, his New York Time’s best-selling novel doesn’t suffer from the same reticence with the word “cancer” that Eugene bemoans in Brighton. Cancer might as well be listed amongst the book’s principle characters. Stripped of all but its most basic parts, TFIOS is a classic tale of star-crossed lovers. However, what sets it apart from the canon of similar stories is the equal attention Green pays to the reason for the stars’ crossing as he does to the lovers themselves, the impossibly bright Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters. The reason, of course, is Hazel’s terminal cancer, which struck me as an interesting proposition in itself. Death is a pretty common convention in fiction writing. Believe me, I was a creative writing major in college. The kids in my program were basically amateur serial killers, bloodthirsty butchers who, when uncertain how to end a story, would turn to murder almost exclusively. Still, it’s not often you begin a story aware that the protagonist is facing her imminent death.
The story wouldn’t be nearly as beautiful without Hazel’s disease playing the haunting, invisible role that it does. Did I mention that she meets Augustus in a cancer support group because he, too, had to face the cold reality of a cancer diagnosis? And therein lies the heart of TFIOS. It should come as no surprise that two stars plagued in the manner that these two are would struggle to understand their identity in this swirling cosmos, wrestling with the inevitability of oblivion. Is Hazel anything more than her disease? What will the world remember of Augustus Waters? These questions and a host of other orbit the veracity of this quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where TFIOS finds its name: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”
Though John Green’s other works appeal to a mostly young adult audience, TFIOS transcends the demographic of its principal characters, offering a soul-wrenching exploration of the meaning of life and death to anyone willing to undergo the journey. I could talk about this book ad nauseam, how strong the writing is, how charming its cast, how much it meant to me in light of my brother’s story. Instead, I will leave you with one practical piece of advice: Don’t read it while surrounded by people unless you’re comfortable with them seeing you weep uncontrollably. I made the regrettable decision of reading it while serving as an advisor for a student leadership retreat, where I was supposed to be a beacon of guidance and wisdom. Big mistake. It is, without question, incredibly moving; it’s also unbelievably sad. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s testimony from the author himself: https://twitter.com/realjohngreen/status/382871893755576321
Sad? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely. Okay? Okay.
About the author:
Jon Bartlett works in student affairs at the University of North Texas, his beloved alma mater where he received a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.Ed. in Higher Education. Jon also hosts a weekly comedy vlog on YouTube called “This is College,” in which he reflects on the many quirks of the college experience. Check out his channel at http://www.youtube.com/thisiscollegevlog, and follow him on Twitter @jondbartlett.