Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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Me: Two-time cancer survivor, first time at age 12, intensive chemotherapy and radiation and given 50/50 odds of making it. Second time in my twenties, a different cancer. For the first one I was treated at a children’s hospital and knew some of the other patients there, and I also went to several summer camps for kids with cancer where I met a whole lot more. I have other cancer survivors close to me who’ve helped me through the most recent one, as well.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS at GoodreadsMy history with The Fault in Our Stars: From the premise, I suspected I would dislike this book. The fact that it claims not to be a “cancer book” is all the more frustrating when it’s pretty much the canceringest cancer book ever to cancer-book.

So my expectations were low, but I was willing to be surprised—and I was. I’d expected it to be a bit of a hate-read, but from what I’d heard I also expected it to be well-written and engaging.

Instead, the poor understanding of cancer patients and repeated inaccuracies just got a bit monotonous—I acknowledge that I haven’t lived every possible cancer experience, but I felt like every other page I was running into something that felt wrong or that I’d never heard anyone say—and to my utter shock, the book was boring.

Of course, the reasons I found it boring made me angry all over again, because they’re indicative of just how poorly John Green portrays pediatric cancer patients.

A cartoon of the cover of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green, but instead the title reads, THE FAULT IN THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.

***

There’s certainly an argument to be made that some people somewhere will react to pediatric cancer the way Green’s characters do. But that argument feels flimsy to me, because it’s like saying a criticism of an Asian-American character is invalid because there might be some Asian kid somewhere who fits all the most absurd stereotypes society wants to saddle us with. Portraying your characters a certain way is a choice … and it becomes an even more slanted, problematic choice when you have multiple characters all in the same demographic, and you choose to portray them all the exact same way.

Which is what John Green has done.

Three people, each holding an object that expresses a different hobby. The words CANCER PATIENT have been written over each of their faces.  The background reads: PERSONALITY - CANCER, HOBBIES - CANCER.

All of his characters react to their cancer in fundamentally the same way and share the same opinions about everything related to Life and Cancer. It would be one thing if these opinions and reactions were ones that struck a chord with me as someone who’s been there (twice), and that made me think, “oh, yeah, that rings true” of either myself or someone I know. But practically none of it does.

Most saliently, all of Green’s characters have lives that revolve entirely around their cancers. This is the most troubling aspect of the book for me. Despite their proclamations to the contrary—“don’t tell me you’re one of those people who becomes their disease”—the characters are shown to have nothing in their lives that isn’t about their cancer. Even Hazel’s reading choices and Gus’s videogame-playing are reflections of their reactions to cancer.

Yeah, cancer messes with your life. It can take over, at least for a while. But what I, personally, would love for people to understand, is that even in the absolute depths of it, there are things that matter outside the illness. We have goals, and motivations, and personalities that have nothing at all to do with our status as Cancerous Beings or as Cancer Survivors.

Cartoon of two teens. Teen 1 (cheerfully, holding a cake): 'I like to see myself as a freakin' awesome baker—' Teen 2: 'No. You are a cancer patient. That is all.'

There is nothing to the conflict in The Fault in Our Stars, nothing to the characters, other than cancer.

They even admit it. Hazel points out at the very beginning of the book that she’s not very interesting, which Gus denies—arguably to get in her pants, because it’s really never shown that she is at all interesting as a person. When her parents are describing what they love about her, out of everything they could possibly think of, they fall back on the only two things we ever see Hazel do: read and watch TV.

Now, don’t get me wrong—the most “ordinary” person can be shown to have an extraordinary life full of worth (as I thought Jesse Andrews did very well in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and if Hazel had been framed in such a way, as a human being whose life was valuable because all of the tiny, important uniquenesses she brought to the world—no matter how seemingly trivial—I would have been pleased. But instead Hazel is continually pushed by the narrative as being special and praiseworthy, as being the exceptional teen … only the story depends on the strike of an unlucky illness to set her apart rather than any intrinsic qualities of Hazel’s. If you take away her cancer, Hazel becomes a cardboard cutout, missing any characterization (unique in either its ordinariness or its extraordinariness) that would make us connect with her.

I’ve known a lot of kids with cancer. We all had depth to our personalities outside of it, interests and motivations that didn’t have to do with “pain demanding to be felt.” And if Green made me care about Hazel and Gus as characters, I would then start caring about their cancer conflict. But I’m not going to care about them because of the cancer—and that’s not only lazy writing, but insulting to me as a person who’s had it.

Cancer treatment is a part of our lives. But it does not define us.

Nor does it magically make us deep.

Not a single one of us cancer kids were half as pretentious or profound as any of the kids in Green’s book. I quickly became exhausted by both Hazel and Gus’s existential ridiculousness.

A cartoon of a boy with a cigarette in his mouth and a woman standing behind him. Woman: 'Excuse me, sir, smoking is not allowed—' Boy: 'I'm not smoking.' Woman: 'But the cig—' Boy: 'It's a metaphor. I'm being deep, see.'

Cancer is random. It doesn’t choose to strike profound people in particular (again, this is something the book frustratingly pays lip service to, and then turns around and shows us the opposite). Nor does pediatric cancer somehow make us profound.

It certainly never made me profound—it just made me angry. And I never spoke to a single other pediatric cancer patient who talked like Green’s characters, either. I suspect people on the outside assign us profundity because of the juxtaposition of imminent and unfair death with otherwise perfectly unprofound statements … but seriously, mostly we were just kids.

Kids, I might add, who were all very, very different.

It’s absolutely bizarre to me that so many of Green’s characters find their perfect friendships and perfect relationships among their fellow pediatric cancer patients. Despite knowing and socializing with a very large number of other cancer kids, I never made more than a passing friendship with any of them. They were perfectly nice people, but we had very little in common.

Cartoon of three teens. One, jumping for joy, says, 'You guys would get along so well! You both have cancer!' Guy with a mohawk and a T-shirt reading PUPPIES FTW says, 'The only thing we have in common is that we think you're dumb.' Girl with a blonde ponytail and a T-shirt reading CATS RULE says, 'Pretty much, yeah.'

It explodes my suspension of disbelief to see a character like Gus, whose best friend, ex-girlfriend, and current girlfriend are all cancer patients. Worse, this exacerbates the idea that Cancer is somehow a defining personal characteristic, something to base a friendship or relationship on, when that’s about as arbitrary and obnoxious as saying two people who both happen to be queer are “clearly so compatible they should be together.”

Sure, sometimes two cancer patients are going to fall in love. But it disturbs me greatly that this emphasis is what Green chose to highlight in his book, because it reinforces that cancer is all we are.

Cartoon of a boy and a girl making out, pink hearts floating around their heads. Boy: 'I love you because you are super cancery.' Girl: 'OMG, that's totally why I love you too. I barely even know you.'

Which brings me to: These characters think and talk and obsess about their cancer a ridiculous amount. You know the last thing I wanted to talk about when I had cancer? I’ll give you one guess.

And I wasn’t alone. When I went to the aforementioned summer camps, as far as I can recall they were really just … you know, summer camps. Where we lived in cabins and played games and whatnot. The only things that were different from a regular summer camp were (1) half the kids were bald, and (2) every so often a story about a past year would end with, “he’s no longer with us.” And there would be a moment of respectful silence and then we’d go back to playing games and telling stories and whatever.

I wonder at Green’s teens who are so obsessed with their cancers they want to wallow in them to such a degree. And as I mentioned above, it’s not just one of his (many, many) characters with cancer who does this; it’s all of them. Even the ones in remission, like the guy who runs the support group or one of the other girls who still attends despite her remission. Nobody has any other life.

This type of portrayal infuriates me.

Cartoon of two teens and a panda. Teen 1: 'OMG! A panda! Let's play with it!' Teen 2: 'I am not allowed to have a life. I have cancer. Shoo, panda.'

Another thing that bothered me about this book is that it picks and chooses which uncomfortable parts of cancer it wants depending on which emotions it wants to peddle. It’s horrifically dishonest. Cancer isn’t like that. You don’t get to isolate which awful bits you talk about and conveniently place them in a neat narrative arc.

At the beginning of the book, Hazel and Augustus are both conveniently cute and hawt and conventionally attractive. She looks like Natalie Portman. He looks like a guy who’s hot enough to make leering non-creepy (which, great message there). They both have hair. They’re not rail-thin skeletons. They get to be attractive.

This is cheap. It’s cheap and upsetting. One of the things that happens with cancer is that you don’t get to be attractive for much of it. To me, it almost felt like Green invented Hazel’s entirely fictional drug regimen in a way that was tailor-made to keep her pretty. For the record, I don’t have any problem with a fictional cancer treatment—after all, medicines vary widely and are advancing and expanding all the time. But the fact that Hazel’s imagined medicine conveniently kept her good-looking felt glaring, especially considering that hair loss—one of the most common and most disproportionally traumatic side effects for many teen patients—didn’t affect a single one of the leads.

You know what might have been nice? Hazel falling in love for the first time when she’s bald and hopped up on so much poison that her hot-guy lust is inconveniently juxtaposed against her noodles coming back up. Especially if the hot guy was also bald and vomiting.

Cartoon of two bald teens sitting next to each other. One teen is vomiting violently. Hearts are floating in the background. Vomiting teen: 'OMG I am so sorry.' Other teen, smiling: 'Heh, when you're done, it's my turn.'

John Green took one of the crappiest experiences in my life and romanticized it for a book.

***

There were only two parts of the whole novel I enjoyed.

The first is when Gus’s G-tube comes out and he’s a vomiting mess and Hazel can’t do anything and has to call 911. It was one of the only scenes that actually felt honest about cancer treatment. (Until Hazel started getting poetical.)

The second was a scene out in the garden where Hazel and Gus start punning on their cancers and Gus says something about how he was so attractive he took Hazel’s breath away and blinded their friend Isaac. In most instances—save for maybe a few lines from Isaac that hit well—the snark in this book felt bolted on, like, “Look how normal these kids are for snarking about their cancer! Aren’t they hip and awesome for making jokes in the face of death!” But the jokes in that conversation for once felt to me like they hit a decent and realistic note. The surprising part about that scene, if you compare it to my real life experiences, is that their parents didn’t join in. Parents need humor too!

***

I’m going to circle back to the premise. Why did I expect I would hate this book? Because it does what all Cancer Books and Cancer Films do. It uses cancer as some sort of lens for the meaningfulness of life and then someone dies and it’s supposed to be Very, Very Sad.

The survival rate for pediatric cancer is currently over 80%. Eighty. Percent. Some sources say close to 90%. Most of us live! Most of us live and go on to have full and interesting and diverse lives. But you’d never know it from reading Cancer Books.

You know what would have been uncliched? If Hazel and Gus had both lived. If they’d both lived, and eventually broken up, and Hazel had gone on to live her life and met some other boys and later on looked back at how god-awful pretentious her first boyfriend was.

That would have been revolutionary. Genre-breaking. Unexpected.

You know what happens when you write a book about kids with cancer and somebody dies? It’s exactly what we expect to happen. Because society has already transformed us pediatric oncology cases into these walking tragic figures for the express purpose of winning awards for books and movies with our Very Tragic Deaths.

I do not exist to be your tragedy. I do not exist for you to find special meaning in your life. I do not exist to teach people Lessons or to give people Feels.

Cartoon of two kids. Girl throws up her hands and says, 'Can we please just watch a movie or cook or something?' Boy answers, 'No, we need to philosophize on how deep we are since we got cancer.'

There’s a line from Hazel that sums up this book:

“I hated it when people [did that to me], but I did it to him anyway.”

TFIOS talks about people being more than their cancers, and then shows us characters who are only their cancers.

TFIOS talks about cancer being random and cancer patients not all being people we would sympathize with and respect, and then shows its characters with cancer as a special cabal of extra-wise people whom nobody else in the world could possibly understand.

TFIOS complains about cancer books, and then becomes the epitome of cancer books.

TFIOS says it hates it when other people and books and movies do these things in their portrayals of cancer patients, but then it does them to us anyway. Times a thousand.

How I would rate this book:

Overall: 1 star (wouldn’t have finished it if I weren’t reading for review)

Portrayal of pediatric cancer: Poor


Illustrations by Coconuthead, who is actually a surprised panda.



About Author

S.L. Huang

S.L. Huang is a speculative fiction writer, book-lover, and extreme nerd.  Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, and its sequel, Half Life, are about a snarky antiheroine who can do math really, really fast.  You can find S.L. Huang on Twitter, where she talks mostly about things that have nothing to do with cancer.  For the record, her lasting lament about the whole childhood cancer thing is that the radiation didn't give her superpowers.

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6 Comments

  1. Have you read Invincible by Any Reed? To me, it seems to address all the issues of TFIOS, but I’d like to hear from someone who’s lived the experience.

    Great review!

  2. Pingback: The weekly web ramble (7/24)

  3. So when I first read the book I actually liked it. But over the last couple of years I’ve become more and more critical of books in general and when I looked back at it I just found it meh. And the blind dude is really unrealistic too.

  4. Wow, I didn’t realize this review was yours! I just happened to stumble upon it through Lauren DeStefano’s Tumblr. I think you did a great job of explaining your views and, while I don’t have my own perspective to back up your experience, I believe your claims are fully substantiated based on your experiences (and likely the experiences of many other cancer patients.) It’s never good when characters are defined solely by their condition.

  5. Really, if truth be told, I couldn’t finish it. I haven’t finished it. And I don’t want to.
    I had had too much of Augustus Waters, and his metaphors. At one point I am sure he didn’t make any sense.

    Hazel, though. I kind of liked her.

    Yes, the blind dude is unrealistic, somewhat.

  6. As a fellow cancer survivor, I feel like I need to remind you. This is a FICTIONAL book from someone who hasn’t ever had cancer. As such, I forgive the occasional indiscretion when it came to creative freedom regarding book.

    As for your analysis, I agree regarding the whole, you get to be HAWT while in cancer thing. I hated it. However, I felt a lot of the things resonated with me. Yes there was HUGE creative freedom granted like the whole being able to drive and what not while on some cancer med. Never heard of that before. However i do remember having conversations and agreeing with some of Gus’s statements regarding being at war with myself. Sort of like a civil war and being genetic defects really. Yes, I loved Gus, probably because I had osteosarcoma and lost a leg too.

    They also made the whole hospital thing sound not as bad as it really is but I guess you have to understand that this is a book. Not a REAL LIFE depiction of cancer by any measure. I understand your resentment and issues and I empathize with the cheesy stuff. Especially having cancer friends. Arguably I got none since we didn’t really bond much during or after cancer.

    Regarding the whole philosophical thing, yeah I never did that either but who knows, maybe its a terminal thing? I was never really terminal to know any better.

    As for exploiting illness to sell a book, truth be told that’s been done before. This just happens to be popular right now. I don’t have much of an issue regarding it.

    Enjoyed your read. Cheers

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