January 18, 2013

BOOKS: The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (2012)

The Fault in Our Stars is one of the hot YA novels of the moment. It's a teen rom-com that attempts to merge the manic energy of screwball comedy with a tragic story (both principals have cancer).

The first problem with doing that hyperactive banter in print, as opposed to in film or TV, is that most of can hear a lot faster than we can read, so when reading, the words don't crackle with the speed and energy they need. Hearing instead of reading also doesn't allow us any time to stop and think about how wildly unrealistic this manner of speech is.

The second problem is that it's simply not easy. I would argue that Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, writes that type of dialogue as well as anyone, and even when Gilmore was at its best, there were moments when I wanted to tie Lorelei to a chair and tell her to just. stop. talking. And Green is not in Sherman-Palladino's class as a writer of bouncy and madcap, so there were lots of similar moments in this book.

Our protagonist is 16-year-old Hazel, whose cancer is being held at bay for the moment, but which is incurable; she knows that it will kill her, and that she doesn't have many years left. She meets Augustus at Support Group one evening, and they fall madly in love.

And how could they not? Augustus has been written to be Hazel's perfect guy -- handsome, irreverent, just as quick with a zippy one-liner as she is. He's so obviously The Guy For Hazel that even the book's jacket copy describes him as "a gorgeous plot twist."

Hazel and Augustus spend a few happy weeks together before tragedy strikes, as we knew it would, but at least they have time to toss off a few more bon mots, make amusing philosophical comments about the nature of oblivion, quote poetry back and forth, and just charm the hell out of each other. Constantly. Every single minute of every single day.

(Oh, and they find time to pop off to Amsterdam to visit the reclusive author of Hazel's favorite novel. Y'know, as one does when one is slowly dying of cancer and must lug an oxygen tank everywhere one goes.)

And there's the biggest peril of writing this type of character: They don't exist in real life. No one is this charming and witty and personable and quirky and chipper all the time; even when they get sick, Hazel and Augustus are adorably sick.

(A digression: Hazel and Augustus? Seriously? Have any Indianapolis parents in the last 80 years or so actually named their children Hazel and Augustus? As if the personalities weren't big enough quirk-fests, they have to be named Hazel and Augustus. Oy.)

Some of the jokes and epic monologues are amusing enough that they kept me going to the end of the book, but oh my god, how I hated both of these characters before it was over. You know the author's doing something wrong when you find yourself rooting for the cancer.

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