Honest and lively YA book reviews
Staying positive in the face of adversity isn't easy. Sometimes life sucks ass. There's a helluva lot of shit that is completely out of our control. We cannot control what other people do, we cannot necessarily control our environment and we cannot always control what our bodies do. This is one of the most difficult things to come to terms with when fighting cancer - the powerlessness that comes with struggling to fight a disease that altogether too easily can run out of control.
"My lungs sucked at being lungs" Hazel tells us. Hazel has cancer. And it's fatal. She's marking time until Augustus Waters rocks up at her group therapy session and gives her a reason to be positive, someone to hang on for and a new perspective on life.
This book should have been a heartfelt, humorous yet emotional rollercoaster of feels about what it's like to die too soon. Instead it turned into a vomit-inducing pretentious, look-at-me-I'm-so-smart collection of words on a page hidden behind a cute cover and a neat title.
This book totally lost it for me because it spent too much time spouting nonsense and not enough time actually meaning something before getting lost and tangled up in knots about halfway through.
"There's no glory in illness. There is no meaning to it. There is no honour in dying of."
There's a lot of sentiments in this book that I agree wholeheartedly with and I adore. There is nothing magical about dying, especially dying so young. I've dealt with a lot of death through my work. I've seen a lot of people depart, and I've laid a lot of people out, giving them their final farewell. It's horrendous. It's heartbreaking. It's hard and generally I like the way The Fault in Our Stars adds no glory to death, telling it as the messy, unfair and unstoppable inevitability it is.
"What a slut time is. She screws everybody."
The book makes the wonderful point that it's not always about the time you have, but instead what you choose to do with that remaining time that matters. I mean, there's a lot of good shit in there. But what's not so good is the execution of the idea John Green had because it's played out by two fucking irritating, so-up-themselves-how-do-they-see-where-they're-going pains in the ass. I did not care for Hazel Grace. I can understand why John Green wrote her the way he did. She's angry at the unfairness of her fate. She's resigned to a slow and joyless death. She's waiting to die. Until Augustus Waters appears and shows her that however short your life is, there's always the possibility to live it to the full.
"You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful."
This would have been adorable, and touching and fabulous if Augustus could can the pretentious bullshit that flows freely from his mouth. He's trying to pin meaning to the meaningless tragedy of his and Hazel's illness. But in doing so he becomes obnoxious. And unfortunately he and Hazel have exactly the same voice. They are the same character in many ways so the book descends into almost an inner monologue of thoughts and ideas about life, the universe and what it all means. And it's boring and unrealistic and downright lazy. This book was always going to be a success due to it's emotive subject matter. It feels almost uncomfortable to critique it in this way because it's a very personal, emotional and sensitive topic. The themes are very powerful and it's easy to self project into the story. But regardless of this - regardless of it's inevitable popularity - the basic craft, character creation and story development still have to be sound. And there were lots of moments I felt it missed the mark. The supporting characters were smoke on the breeze, the plot arc was almost nonsensical and the ending was a shit storm of emotional manipulation.
Hazel is smitten with Augustus the moment she lays eyes on him:
"I liked that he was a tenured professor in the Department Of Slightly Crooked Smiles with a dual appointment in the Department Of Having a Voice That Made My Skin Feel More Like Skin."
This kind of flowery, vomit-inducing description makes me cringe. I'm a nurse and I like keeping it real so it may be that this just really isn't the book for me because the story is loaded with this kind of cheesy, over-cooked bullshit which makes me roll my eyes so hard I'm afraid I'm gonna lose them inside my head. Book !! What're you doing ?! Book ?! Stahp !!
Hazel and Augustus have to be two of the least convincing teenagers I've ever read about. Ever. They have had to mature quickly because of their horrible illnesses but c'mon John Green !! Could you not have made them sound like actual humans rather than two stilted characters in some Play of Life, reciting their lines for the captivated audience. There was nothing comfortable and easy about their relationship. Chemistry ?!! Where are you ?!! It all sounds rehearsed. It's all too clean and neat. Augustus just bugged the ever loving crap outta me:
"It's embarrassing that we all just walk through life blindly accepting that scrambled eggs are fundamentally associated with mornings."
No it's not and we don't. What's embarrassing is announcing this kind of mundane, pissy bullshit and dressing it up as something deep and meaningful and philosophical. I'm really not Augustus Waters' biggest fan just for the sheer volume of crap that he insists on sharing. Queuing is a form of oppression? What is that? I've seen the fear of someone who knows they are close to the end of their life. And I can appreciate trying to overanalyse every detail of every moment for a sign and for something to cling onto - some hope and some reason - but there's that and then there's this:
"Without pain, how could we know joy. This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and it's stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate."
Because although the book pleads with us to understand there is no romance and no glory in death, it does a helluva job trying exceedingly hard to be just that - poetic and whimsical and tragically beautiful. It's very confused and so am I. On the one hand I enjoyed the message of death not being something to glorify, but something frightening and lonely, and then on the other hand I just despised the execution as it sorely contradicted itself.
The plot, I'm uncertain of. There were a lot of strands running parallel, with Hazel and her shit with her desperation to isolate herself to minimise the pain of her death, there was the cute friends, the disastrous trip to goddam Amsterdam because of that stupid fucking book, there was Augustus and his own issues to sort through and then there was the romance. So I feel like there was a lot happening and it wasn't all brought to a very satisfying conclusion. I feel like John Green really dropped the ball when it came to the author of Hazel's favourite book, An Imperial Affliction, Peter Van Houten who she and Augustus track down and travel to Amsterdam to quiz about the ending of the story about a girl named Anna dying a rather horrible death, which ended kinda abruptly.
Hazel really feels the story of Anna:
"Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book."
She lives through the character, finding many parallels between her own story and Anna's and she has a hellbent desperation to discover the true ending. I don't get this. I'm very confused by the way that Hazel and Augustus behave - they insist on corresponding with this author despite the fact that he is incredibly rude and dismissive of them. They then fly half way around the world to meet this dick and appear super surprised and hurt when he behaves in exactly the same way face-to-face as he did in his letters - pompous, derogatory and pretentious. For two supposedly exceptionally smart kids they behave like a pair of brats. They of all people should understand the pain of loss. And yet, despite the fact that An Imperial Affliction is plainly a true account of Van Houten's own daughter's short and tragic life they insist on intruding on his grief and making fools of themselves yelling about Anna's fucking hamster. I completely lost faith in the pair of them, and if I'm honest I lost faith in the book as it seemed to lose direction at this point and go sailing off into the horizon, staring into the sun.
The characters are looking for meaning, right? They're looking for answers. And they discover that perhaps there are none through their unfortunate interactions with Van Houten, but they go about it in the most obnoxious, self-indulgent, introspective and disrespectful way. I lost interest in them at this point. They really are children. They're not as wise or as smart as they would like to project. And I don't think that this was the book's intention. I believe through The Fault in Our Stars, John Green was trying to humanise the dying, to give them a voice and make them real people without the label of their illness attached, and to show that children are capable of dealing with and understand more than we perhaps always give them credit for, but by making Hazel and Augustus behave in such a callous and insensitive way in regards to Van Houten, I really feel like he swung in the opposite direction and made these two sick kids just that - simply two self-involved and dying children. It made me uncomfortable to read and was really not what I was expecting from this book at all.
The ending was tragic, of course. That was expected. And it was well handled. I really wish John Green had cut out, or changed the angle of the trip to Amsterdam as without that this book would have scored much higher in my eyes because I enjoyed the end. It was beautiful, flowing and honest. The characters had a different feel about them. There was less of the play-acting and more raw interaction which I feel would have been a better tone to carry throughout the story rather than just tacked on at the end. Overall though, I feel like this book was too many tablespoons of emotional manipulation and not enough real life, actual feeling. Which is strange considering the research that went into creating this. There was too much try-hard bullshit which eclipsed the basic and heartbreaking story of Hazel and Augustus' short lives. Strip all that crap back and it could have been great. But with that all glued on there, garish and brash, this is just another Cry-Goddamit tale of death and hopeless hoping. Which is disappointing.