Spoiler alert: I’ve tried to write Part 1 of this review without spoilers, because I think this book is worth purchasing and enjoying for yourself. Part 2 is full of spoilers.
Part 1: “The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green
My literary friend Nick chose this book for our reading group because he’d been told “it’s the best writing I’ve read in X number of years” (I can’t recall the X). When I asked about it at my new favorite bookstore, Manchester-by-the-Book, the proprietor raised an eyebrow and walked me back to the young adult section, just to boast, “I’m probably the only book store in America that doesn’t have any John Green.” A mixed reception. What was I getting myself into?
I was getting myself into a book I never would have chosen: A teenage romance set in an oncology ward.
Surprisingly, I devoured the book and relished the discussion. I started it on Tuesday night and came with an iPad full of questions for our Thursday lunch. Green’s writing, which The New York Times’ Natalie Standiford calls “melancholy, sweet, philosophical, and funny,” employs enough bright tones to keep readers open and engaged (you can read her review, including spoilers, here). In a series of Questions and Answers from Green’s website (more spoilers), he makes it clear that he offers the text to be pondered by author and readers alike, addressing sickness, mortality, and ontology without attempting any authoritative answers.
Nonetheless, when it comes to questions of meaning and reality, Green distributes suggestions by the handful. He handed me a better appreciation for existentialism. In the past, I thought that an honest existentialist would by necessarily become a nihilist. In a world of disembodied thoughts, I still think he or she would eventually get there, but we have bodies–oftentimes, sick ones. Through Hazel, Gus, Isaac, and the other teenagers in this book, I grew to appreciate the thoughtfulness and nuance supporting many relativists’ existential perspective. When hope are undermined, it takes courage to seek meaning in the people and experiences of the present.
Courage, though, admirable as it may be, sometimes stands apart from the truth. Is it our responsibility or right to make meaning? If Christ reigns–or “there is a higher power,” or “there is a prime mover”–we should not be surprised or offended if we are instead invited to be meaning-receivers.
As the story ended, God’s name was whispered from some unexplored corners of Hazel’s world. I don’t know whether Green intended to make any such suggestion (the theistic turns of phrase may come from our semantic heritage rather than his design), but they spark an important train of thought for Christians trying to make sense of the authentic pain, anger, and confusion depicted in The Fault in Our Stars.
Part 2: Divine Hope and “The Fault in Our Stars”
From start to finish, I was most moved by Isaac’s premature eulogy. Messy and macabre, he stumbles all the way through the seeming end, but then,
“Augustus, my friend, Godspeed.”
Augustus nodded for a while, his lips pursed, and then gave Isaac a thumbs-up. After he’d recovered his composure, he added, “I would cut the bit about seeing through girls’ shirts.”
Isaac was still clinging to the lectern. He started to cry. He pressed his forehead down to the podium and I watched his shoulders shake, and then finally, he said, “Goddamn it, Augustus, editing your own eulogy.”
“Don’t swear in the Literal Heart of Jesus,” Gus said.
“Goddamn it,” Isaac said again.*
How can a blog self-titled “faithfulandfruitful” copy and paste a blind teenager taking God’s name in vain? First of all the blind teenager doesn’t exist, and I’m not sure the author’s use was entirely flippant. Second, what if you were listening at the back of the church and the first honest syllable out of this broken boy’s mouth were, “God”? What Isaac may see as instinctual cursing suggests something very human: The longing for there be a god strong enough to “speed” or perhaps even to damn. We wonder, deep down in Underland, whether we’re fools to ever have believed in such a thing as the sun, and more so to hope to lay eyes on it ever again.
God’s name appears two more times in the last few pages of the story, in increasingly personal tones.
“Do you think you guys will stay together if I die?” I asked.
“Hazel, what? Sweetie.” She fumbled for the remote control and paused the TV again. “What’s wrong?”
“Just, do you think you would?”
“Yes, of course. Of course,” Dad said. “Your mom and I love each other, and if we lose you, we’ll go through it together.”
“Swear to God,” I said.
“I swear to God,” he said.
I looked back at Mom. “Swear to God,” she agreed.
“Why are you even worrying about this?”
“I just don’t want to ruin your life or anything.”
Mom leaned forward and pressed her face into my messy puff of hair and kissed me at the very top of my head.**
Once again, God’s name is repeated in a colloquialism, but this time the phrase itself denotes a certain amount of respect (even if Hazel would consider it wishfully misplaced). The thrust of this exchange isn’t anything like a religious oath, it’s a revelation. Hazel reveals to her parents (and confirms for the reader) that one of her deepest fears is posthumously ruining their lives. This conversation should first be digested as a glimpse of a sick kid’s perspective, but God’s name is just prominent enough to prepare us to notice his last appearance, just before the back cover.
May God bless and keep you, Hazel.
Your friend, Lidewij Vliegenthart***
We’d be amiss to read over the high priestly blessing from the pen of the only purely positive person in the book. Though Lidewij is a fairly minor character, she’s the only one who’s folded in without a single eye-roll, the only who does not falter. In the closing moments, she prays for Hazel the one thing we all wish for: The blessing and protection of God. Many people call the idea impossible or reject all religious tenants they’ve run across, but in our quiet moments we long for one to truly, rightfully, permanently declare: I’m going to take care of you; it’s going to be ok. In cancer, loss, heartache, we’re all longing for divine hope.
Even John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, in which the characters ultimately find existential meaning through their web of imperfect human relationships, glances into the heavens. I don’t draw out these quotes to claim that Green included a secret message or couldn’t have avoided these references if he tried. Rather, as we read this book, we should see that Green and his readers are asking these questions. If “Is there meaning to life?” is the first question, then “Is there a God?” is question 1, part A, because any of us who did not will ourselves into being are probably a meaning-receivers. The divine’s character is the basis for divine hope.
The Scriptures tell us that we have a faithful and merciful high priest, who not only prays this blessing over us, to be blessed and kept by the Almighty God, but has also successfully secured God’s favor, who promises that all ask him for it shall receive.
*Green, John (2012-01-10). The Fault in Our Stars (p. 259). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.