Revathi Suresh: The Fault was in my Stars

My first instinct when I finished John Green’s The Fault in our Stars was to mark him ten on five somewhere post haste. Of late I’ve become a bit of a rating junkie (side effect of having newly rediscovered the joys of reading) who has to notch up the books I read on various forums. And I badly wanted to record formally how much I loved this teen novel that Time Magazine called an ‘existential tragedy of tremendous intelligence and courage and sadness’. The movie will be out next year but I don’t plan to watch it because I don’t want my heart broken twice over by the same book, thank you. I generally don’t like tragedies, there’s enough of that happening in real life and when it comes to books and movies I unashamedly lean towards those that end on a positive note. I remember ages ago walking unsuspecting, with my two little kids in tow, into a show of *Bridge to Terabithia* and coming out trying to discreetly mop up the evidence of my own distress while my teary-eyed duo blasted me for having chosen this particular film to entertain them. ‘You said this was a children’s film and children’s films are supposed to be happy!’
With The Fault in our Stars I couldn’t claim I’d stumbled into sadness … I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for. Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters are, I believe, the hottest couple to ever occupy the pages of a teen novel. They are smart, witty, intelligent and totally made-for-each-other. And doomed. But if you’ve read the book, you know that and in any case this is not a review … I think. More a sharing of the dilemma I faced as I rushed to ten-star the book.
I ran into a hurdle right away because, hello, this is a very famous book and it already has more ratings than there are stars in the sky. So my very important opinion is not going make a whit of difference to anyone on this planet. Two, I don’t know about everyone else, but I do tend to read other reviews first. And I was particularly curious about readers who hadn’t liked the book at all.
The first one put me on the back-foot right away. The reviewer, while conceding that maybe Green knew or had known someone who had suffered from the disease and therefore had ‘insider’ knowledge of his protagonists condition, thus enabling him to move beyond platitudes in his book, also said that those who have no idea of what it is like to lose a loved one (specifically a teenaged loved one) to the disease have no business laughing at the in jokes because then you are essentially finding humour in what is a very real tragedy for many, and that only those who have actually been in that place are entitled to find anything even remotely laughable in the book. This made me feel guilty as hell because I had chuckled my way through a good bit of it. Suitably chastened I thought, not ten, maybe eight little asterisks?
Then there was another review that said, and I paraphrase, that I love John Green but after a point all his characters sound alike … they are all terribly intelligent minor philosophy gurus. Now, this is my first JG book and I don’t know if this is true. Nonetheless I jotted down note to self: do not read his books back to back however tempting it might be to do so. I suppose all writers leave their mark on their work because everyone has a writing ‘voice’. And Green’s a frighteningly articulate guy—I mean, have you checked out his vlogs? He never hesitates over a word or fumbles for the correct turn of phrase—so chances are you are never going to see him falter in his writing. Maybe all his heroes and heroines and other major and minor characters have that quality of never being short of the right word or terrific line no matter what their circumstance because, for no fault of theirs, they all willy-nilly inherit the John Green brand of awesome eloquence. I do get, however, that it can be irritating and disappointing to a reader when characters merge into each other and you forget who belongs in which book.
Teens don’t talk the way Hazel and Augustus do, said another reader. Hmm…this is where I get stuck good and proper because for me the lead characters are the USP of the book.
If you’ve read The Fault…, you’ll know that H and A speak in complete sentences, never swear, are very well behaved well-read poetry-quoting kids and basically the opposite of the very incoherent Bella and Edward. (And here I must confess that I haven’t read the Twilight books though I did watch the first film and found mumbled conversations that went ‘um…er..so…huh…well,’ really annoying. Non-words like that are ok as fillers but you can’t have entire dialogues that so cruelly showcase your characters’ lack of language development. I don’t know if this is because the books are more description than dialogue-based and if the characters actually grunt their way through the entire series in this fashion) In any case, I’d like to believe that there are many young people out there who have the fluent, expressive vocabulary of Hazel and Augustus—maybe without their consistent wit but come on, those two had their lines written for them—as there are the ‘you know-so-like-whoa-what’s that word again’ types. What I did find a little strange, in retrospect, is that they are mirror images of each other. There is really nothing to distinguish the male voice from the female voice. And if they had not been the star-crossed lovers they are, they would have just been a regular, cute, wise-cracking couple in a teeny-bopper romance. Instead they are elevated to a superior place right away because of the black cloud that hangs over them. Also, they never get into the tiffs and spats that are the norm in every relationship. That might be a side-effect of their circumstances, but it ends up making them come off as way more mature and unreal than any quote-toting intellectual teen one may know. I hate that I’m forced to make excuses for them … but but but I’m down to a measly six stars.
Some readers felt that the writing was emotionally manipulative. I think almost all writers are guilty of manipulative writing of the kind where you can practically hear the violins in the background. But let’s face it, the fact that there are so many films based on novels these days means that even as you’re composing sentences on your laptop, you’re imagining the whole scene being played out in glorious Technicolor (for instance, I imagined myself vlogging this piece Green-styIe as I was writing it). But I honestly didn’t feel the book was overwritten or overwrought. I was marginally irritated by the somewhat surreal comings and goings of a character called Peter Van Houten, but that was about it.
Like I said, there are millions of reviews of The Fault… out there since the Internet has made it possible for every reader to become a reviewer. And I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. But the chatter can get so loud and intense sometimes, especially if the work that’s being dissected is a blockbuster, that you can’t even hear your own opinion in all that noise. You just end up confused, questioning the validity and value of your own judgement. There were times when I wondered, not necessarily in a negative way, if we had all even read the same book.
This guy is only thirty-five the wiki tells me, he’s already written several books—An Abundance of John Greens … sorry, I couldn’t resist that—and I will most certainly go through all of them in my own sweet time. And despite its many flaws I will stick to my guns and give this one five stars.
So … I guess maybe this is a review?

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2 comments

  1. My dear lady, I’m so happy that you’re under the influence of yours truly. But I am not responsible for Flipkart’s missing copies…the fault is in their stocks! I read mine on an e-reader because I believe in saving paper and contributing to e-waste instead.

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