I just finished reading John Green’s latest novel The Fault in our Stars and my head (and heart) are still spinning around (and sputtering softly and vulnerably) two hours later. It is truly a great book.
First, a few words about John Green. I bow down to this man. His books are brilliant and funny and philosophically thought-provoking, with moments of heartbreak flashing sporadically so that when you’re reading you sometimes have to catch your breath and put the book down and marvel for a minute at the guy’s freaking genius. I am not overstating here.
Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska (which won the Printz Award) are really good books, but my favorite (until roughly two hours ago) is the first book I read of Green’s, An Abundance of Katherines. The main character is a cynical, depressed boy who’s had the cruddy luck to be dumped by nineteen girls named Katherine. After yet another break up, he goes off on a zany summer road trip with his best friend.
There’s clever dialogue along the way and something about a vicious boar attack and also an attempt to plot out the perfect mathematical equation—one that will pinpoint exactly when a person is about to be dumped.
I was cracking up nearly the entire time I was reading it and marveling at how spot on Green was at capturing a type of teen not often portrayed in YA novels— a kind of nerdy, gifted, wise-cracking boy. (Side note: everyone in my family got hooked on John Green’s books. My son, when fifteen, read all three books on a family vacation, literally toting the open books around with him wherever we went. This was a kid who did not read YA books and most of the time did not read any fiction at all. He had jumped at age twelve right into the world of adult non-fiction, stuff by Jon Krakauer and Bill Bryson. After reading the John Green collection he remarked that he hadn’t known there were books out there meant for him.
So Fault in our Stars came out about a month ago and I went right out to buy it but my son got to it first. He closed himself up in his room and basically didn’t come out until he finished it. Then he handed it to me, solemnly, tears in his eyes, and said, "This is a great book."
I put it off for a week because I knew what it was about. I’d read little snippets of reviews online. It’s a love story. About kids with cancer. Which doesn’t sound—how shall I say this kindly?—good. But this is John Green we’re talking about here. If anyone could pull it off, he could.
I read a lot of books. Specifically, I read a lot of books for young adults. So many, in fact, that lately I can sort them into categories without even reading past the first page. There are the “bad” books. Many more are simply “meh” books—quick (or not so quick) reads, a fast food equivalent of literature. (You know how you like that big mac for the 20 seconds you’re wolfing it down and then you kind of wished you hadn’t ever pulled through the drive thru?) There are a lot of good books, too. Page turners and slow builders. Cool flashy entertaining ones and books you want to get lost in and return to.
And then there is this other level all together. From the very first page, you’re in. The writing is effortless (which is to say that it was probably incredibly sweated over but after much work has been boiled down to its essence and seems effortless). Sometimes I read a pretty good book and I feel nothing but despair. I’m envious of the writer’s talent. I’m jealous of the cool idea or the clever execution. I look at my own writing and find it sadly lacking. But here’s something cool about a great book: there is no despair or envy. Instead I am inspired.
There are very few books that fall into this category for me. And this is a key point to make—it’s very personal, this response to literature. But if anyone’s wondering, here’s my list of all time greats—books that made me suck in my breath, cheer, marvel, cry, be grateful that I got to share in the experience and/or feel pride that I live in a world where such a book exists:
Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
Story of a Girl, Sara Zarr
How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff
Holes, Louis Sachar
Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo
Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
Nobody's Fool, Richard Russo
Moby Dick, Herman Melville (had to read it in school and was totally blown away and shocked, I guess, that what I thought would be a dry classic by a long dead guy, could speak to me.)
The Fault in our Stars, John Green
It’s a love story about kids with cancer. Hazel Grace is stricken with an incurable lung disease. Augustus Waters has beaten bone cancer but lost a leg in the battle. Neither Hazel nor Augustus would like that I used the word "battle." It ticks them off that people frame the discussion of disease in terms of war. They also mock the "cancer perks," cool stuff well-meaning people give cancer patients out of pity, such as free tickets to Disney World. Or champagne. (But they’re not above taking the champagne.) They also discuss books, recite poems, play violent action video games, and have philosophical discussions about life.
I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of capturing this book, a shameful side effect of Great Bookism. A truly great book can’t be adequately explained or dissected or pitched. There really is nothing you can do in the end, but read it and share it with someone else.
So do me a favor and get your hands on this book. Read it and share it with someone else.