Some books demand to be noticed. Everywhere you go, you see them in a bookstore window, on the required reading table, on the top-selling Kindle titles or being made into a newly-minted major motion picture.
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars meets all the above criteria, so a friend and I gave in to the hype and read the book over a weekend. We discovered a touching story of tragedy and relationship. The book offers emotional insight into young suffering, specifically the ravages of cancer, yet the evolving worldviews of its characters sometimes muddle what is being said about love, suffering and the afterlife.
The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a smart and sarcastic teenager battling thyroid cancer. She meets and befriends Augustus “Gus” Waters, a witty and sardonically irreverent teenager who quickly courts Hazel’s affections, even as he deals with the seeming remission of his own osteosarcoma. The two connect over a novel, An Imperial Affliction, and are equally vexed that it ends abruptly, leaving them with unanswered questions. Hazel and Gus set out to correspond with the reclusive author. Even as time is not on their side, romance ensues amid the very present pains and poignancy of cancer.
Love in the Here and Now
But I believe in true love, you know? I don’t believe that everyone gets to keep their eyes or not get sick or whatever, but everybody should have true love, and it should last at least as long as your life does.
These are Gus’s words to Hazel as they first meet. His later confession of love to her is equally stirring:
I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasures of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.
Such are the well-crafted lines that prompt readers and moviegoers to sigh on command. But their meanings are nebulous at best. More than delivering a rush of emotion, these lines suggest a perspective for understanding life, love and human suffering. It may just be the perspective of the characters, not the author, but it is someone’s perspective. And it’s connecting with a great number of teens and adults.
It’s somewhat problematic because the message is fickle and confusing. The novel presents two terminally ill teens who both hold uncertain beliefs about an afterlife, though much of their language is somewhat religious in nature. One character, in a moment of horrendous pain, wishes to return to “the beginning when there was the Word, and to live in that vacuous uncreated space alone with the Word.
Attempting to understand his circumstances, Gus confesses that he fears “oblivion”:
The oblivion fear is something else, fear that I won’t be able to give anything in exchange for my life. If you don’t live a life in service of a greater good, you’ve got to at least die a death in service of a greater good, you know? And I fear that I won’t get either a life or a death that means anything.
Yet he later contradicts this fear, expounding that “the universe wants to be noticed… that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.”
This mishmash of perspectives is due in part to Green’s effort to tell the story as teens would, yearning and searching to find meaning in life. But the success of the novel probably indicates that it’s an audience confused with itself, its purpose and its destiny. The novel does, however, provide an important perspective most teens lack: the recognition that they are not invincible.
The Fault in Ourselves
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2
Those familiar with the Shakespeare quote from which the book borrows its title will have a clue as to what’s in store in The Fault in Our Stars. The characters take us with them to stare into the abyss of how frail we really are. But often lacking a higher vision, they turn to each other instead of something greater with life’s biggest questions about love, cancer and the universe.
With that said, you won’t find an answer to human suffering in The Fault in Our Stars and you’ll probably be left confused as to its views on suffering and God. The novel cares less about dealing with the problem of evil and suffering theologically and more about trying to understand the struggles of those facing terminal illnesses, particularly teenagers. It gives us a real glimpse of what it is like to face suffering devoid of God. Even more, it paints a hard but beautiful picture of human love, both its strengths and limits.
The Fault in Our Stars is indeed a romance novel. It is the story of two star-crossed teenagers in an unthinkable circumstance, clumsily romancing a worldview that often values the temporal over the eternal, the visible over the invisible, the human over the divine. But this is not a romance to which Gus and Hazel alone succumb. It woos every human heart that has ever sounded a beat, and therein lies the fault in all of us—a cancer whose only remedy is the gospel of Jesus Christ.