I admit that young adult literature isn’t usually my cup of tea; I can only name a handful of contemporary YA literature that I have read and liked. The first that comes to mind is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I read many years ago and re-read last winter. It is the first novel in my list of recommendations, and I would even list it among my favourite novels of all time. Others on the former list include: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne and I Am the Messenger— againby Markus Zusak.
After some thought, the only reason I can think of to explain my wariness when it comes to reading YA is that I don’t really enjoy reading about teenagers and that general period of one’s life – especially from a first-person perspective, which often seems to be the case in this genre of literature.
It may come as a surprise then, that the first novel I read this year was YA.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I decided to read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green primarily because I am a fan of the author, despite not having read any of his novels previously. I enjoy watching his YouTube videos, where he and his brother, Hank, share their thoughts about society, life, and other miscellaneous topics. The videos are often humorous, or profound, and always very entertaining. John and Hank have built up a wonderful community of fans (known as ‘Nerdfighters’) who often participate in charity and advocacy projects. They seem to radiate this infectious energy through their videos and I find myself learning about and reflecting upon issues I never would have come across (and not only because they also host educational videos on Crash Course and SciShow).
Now, back to the topic at hand.
The Fault in Our Stars is told from the perspective of 16-year old Hazel Grace Lancaster, who has terminal thyroid cancer. At her support group, she meets Augustus Waters— a 17-year old who lost his leg due to osteosarcoma when he was younger. They become friends, fall in love, and go to Amsterdam to find an author named Peter van Houten, who wrote Hazel’s favourite novel and left it unfinished.
I read the novel in one sitting on a quiet afternoon. Perhaps my impression of the book would have been different if I had taken my time reading it, instead of rushing to the end. At times, it was very emotionally draining, though there are plenty of light-hearted, humourous moments scattered throughout to ease the heaviness. There are beautiful messages about love, death and living contained in this novel. I appreciate the maturity of the characters and the sensitivity the author shows in his portrayal of cancer.That being said, I can’t say I enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars as much as I hoped I would, based on the reviews I read of the book and the high esteem to which I hold the author. My main criticism is that the entire novel is riddled with metaphors and symbolism. It suffers from what I’d describe as: “Everything Has a Deeper Meaning. Yes, Even That.”
There are characters within the novel itself explaining the significance of, for example, an unlit cigarette:
“And I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.”
Literary devices are certainty not undesirable in a novel, like frosting on a cake or the trills in a piece of music. But saccharinity and frivolousness are not positive attributes; neither are literary devices running rampant in a novel, like the lights of the city, obscuring the night stars. Imagine walking along a path through a forest. On the other side is your hitherto unknown destination. Your stroll is pleasant, but it is difficult to enjoy it because of the distractions appearing at your side every few steps. You wish to stop and examine that beautiful flower or make a keepsake of a particularly pretty leaf, but in turn, you are distracted from the journey, though it is a relatively straightforward one. Before the end, you stumble over a branch that has fallen in your path, but you emerge from the forest much quicker than you anticipated. You are left with a feeling that there is something lacking, but your destination is not entirely disappointing. You are still glad you made the journey.
(See what I did there?)
I understand that being forced to realize your mortality at such a young age can make one mature beyond their years, but I still find it unrealistic that a teenage would come up with:
“My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.”
Ultimately, I appreciate the novel the most during moments when Hazel and Augustus sound and act like real teenagers and not the quote generators of wisdom and profundity they are made out to be at times:
Hazel: “God, you’re the best.”
Augustus: “I bet you say that to all the boys who finance your international travel.”
Despite my criticisms, I can see why people love this novel. It is touching and its message is very thoughtful. The characters are not unlikable and here are many small gems of insight to be treasured:
“All I could think about now, as night fell, was how much you can love made-up people, and how much you can miss them.”