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Last adolescent lit class

The Fault in our StarsFor our last class, students are reading The Fault in Our Stars, which I offer as a “dessert book” after their hard work this term, and also as a comparison love story to Eleanor and Park from our second week. The class will also read Katrina and Rachel’s take on “What Makes a Good Love Story” (and their follow up post on Eleanor and Park). In their excellent round up, Katrina and Rachel ask, “What creates [the] magic” in a love story, the stuff that makes us “fall hopelessly in love alongside the characters”?

Hordes of adolescent (and adult) readers have fallen in love with TFIOS. What are the “magical” elements of this novel that make it so beloved? Does it share any with Eleanor and Park, or other great YA love stories? Or do the best love stories offer something unique? Feel free to add your own favorites to the conversation.

This week’s readings:

  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • “What Makes a Good Love Story” by Katrina Hedeen and Rachel L. Smith from Horn Book Magazine, May/June 2013
  • and addendum on Eleanor and Park from Out of the Box blog, April 17, 2013
Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. Nicole Shelpman says:

    Last year, I knew that I needed to read this novel after I heard many of my 12th and 9th grade students (including some of my more reluctant readers) discussing how amazing the book is. They were clearly captivated by the magic of this love story, and I think that a lot of the magic comes from how relatable the characters are. When Hazel first meets Augustus at group therapy, she does not expect to fall in love, and she certainly does not expect him to fall in love with her. She is surprised that Augustus finds her beautiful and interesting, and for any reader who has ever doubted his/her chances of falling in love, this unexpected romance provides hope that love can blossom in the most unlikely places.

    A romance that is brief but deep seems to be a common element in many love stories, and I think that love stories that are cut short by tragedy are so magical because they immortalize the blissfulness of love. In death, love cannot fade with time, and the lovers will never drift apart or willingly end their relationship. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is one of our iconic love stories because the young lovers were ready to die for each other; if they had the opportunity to continue their relationship, that level of passion may not have remained. I do not believe, however, that this is the only reason why a brief, passionate love story is so captivating. A tragic love story, especially one that develops despite a looming terminal illness, reminds readers that love can conquer anything. Though the thought of hurting Augustus initially causes Hazel to distance herself from him, she eventually realizes that the pain is worth it, for both of them. The novel may have a heartbreaking ending by most accounts, but it also leaves the reader with the sense that Hazel and Augustus were lucky to have one of the best experiences that anyone can hope for in life – the opportunity to truly love and be loved by another person. For these reasons, this novel reminded me of A Walk to Remember (which is not officially a YA book, but is one that I read as a young adult).

  2. Add this book to the list of a few other ones that I refuse to read again. After having finished the last page, I’m left feeling as though I’ve somehow been mistreated, somehow compromised. I expected to read a book that would open and end at a distance from me, or at most, leave me with a dim, slightly new perspective on life. Instead, I get this book, which though beautifully written and structured, has articulated more than any other so far, almost every thought and fear that I constantly attempt to bury, keep at bay, or evade.

    Seeing Augustus mumbling to himself, lying in his own urine, for example, instantly reminded me of a suppressed image from college of my best friend, collapsed in her own urine and blood, a humiliation owed to cancer. And then there’s Augustus’ beef with the universe, a contention I also share–the idea that we are constantly trying to stake claims in life in order to somehow survive death, but it’s all a futile attempt. Time will continue without you, and people will forget you. Being present at his makeshift funeral–while a clever way to outwit death–was even a failed attempt by Augustus to be present at a moment when he’ll actually no longer BE present. There are other matters like this for me in the book, matters that forced me to relive horrid times or confront demoralizing questions. The book was not enjoyable to read as a result.

    And I’m sure my chill towards the book only speaks to the potency of Green’s story and the strength of his craft. And maybe that’s what good books do–polarize your emotions, I mean. I can see the book’s appeal, it’s eloquent portrayal of loving someone and being loved in return, like Nicole said. Regardless, the book was a violation… and now a haunting that I don’t appreciate having to deal with.

  3. Emily Sapienza says:

    I had a theory at the beginning of the semester, based on rereading a YA book I’d loved at 13, A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle. The theory was this: YA books provide an age-appropriate venue for addressing the great mysteries of life, chief among them sex and death. While adult fiction was much more appealing to me when I was a YA myself, A Ring of Endless Light gave me a look at both topics from the view of someone else my age. This kind of direct look creates a safer space for young people to learn about and reflect on what happens when people die; both physically to human bodies, and what happens to those whom are left behind.

    All this to say that I understand why A Fault in Our Stars is so popular with people: it provides a direct look at death from the perspective of people who should be too young to know what it feels like.

    That said: I didn’t actually enjoy this book much. I felt like both Hazel and Augustus were not deep or real characters, and instead that I was reading the ruminations of a 20-something year-old man (John Green) who tried to insert his ideas into the thoughts of his characters. But to me it just sounded kind of like him the whole time. Particularly with Hazel. I have no sense of what she is like, WHO she is. There was no feel to her, other than her thoughts and words. It particularly felt like it was a real force for Green to write as a 16-year-old girl. Augustus was more fully drawn and real to me. But the way those two spoke to each other? Not convincing dialogue. And even some of the deeper issues at play between them: Hazel feeling like a grenade, for example, felt forced. Like I get the *idea* behind it. But I didn’t feel the actual emotion coming from Hazel. Hazel worries in the book that she is one of those people who is nothing but their illness, and I think that’s perhaps the truest thing she says. But that’s not a critique on Hazel in the fiction, it’s a critique of Green’s depiction of her.

    In the end I think this is a book that attempts to really grapple with some hard issues, and I commend Green for going for it. But as a work of fiction, I didn’t buy it. To Nicole’s point, though, I will say that that’s perhaps the saddest part of the story: that neither of those two lived long enough to know what happens when love does change or fade or evolve, or even ruin you; getting to move on, heal, and love again is one of the better things about getting to live a long life. That’s perhaps the saddest part of the book; young people who understand death more intimately than they’ll even get to understand living.

  4. Nicole Eslinger says:

    After reading this book, it took some time and reflection to realize exactly what made it such a powerful love story. The beauty is found in the brevity of the lives of the main characters. Regardless of their obvious, and often graphic struggles, Augustus and Hazel had an opportunity that many people are denied due to longevity of life. The main characters in this story never had a chance to drift apart and feel the anxiety, discomfort, and pain of a lengthy break up. As Nicole mentioned, death immortalizes their love in a beautiful way.

    The story of Hazel and Augustus is so poignant due to the fact that they experience a complete relationship. Though brief, their relationship includes many hardships. Hazel finding Augustus covered in vomit in his car is just one instance that speaks to the gravity of their situation. This, if anything, brings them closer as they fight together to overcome obstacles. The complexity of their relationship reminds me in part of the relationship between Eleanor and Park. I think that the maturity and understanding that is integral to their relationship is similar to that of Hazel and Augustus. Both pairs of teenagers must deal with difficult and trying circumstances, yet use their partners as a source of strength and resilience.

  5. Emma Roose says:

    The Fault in Our Stars took the classic teen romance to a mature, philosophical, and existential level with humor and unpretentiousness. I can’t help but think that John Green could have easily written an entire adult novel in the eloquent Van-Houten-like prose that try to tackle the same kinds of paradoxes of life, and it would have been amazing. But he didn’t. He chose the story of Hazel and Gus – a YA novel – to explore the complexities of life, death, and love, and I’m all the more grateful for it. Green chose not to ‘write down’ to his audience, both in concepts and plot, and I now understand why The Fault in Our Stars is such a universally adored book. Ideas like “some infinities are bigger than other infinities” (well, Hazel’s whole eulogy, actually) really challenged my own way of thinking and elevated the whole book outside the limits of this world. Eleanor and Park was a fine story, but stayed very much on the ground, inside Eleanor and Park’s own heads, in their known concepts of reality. Rowell didn’t try to tackle any larger life questions. Unlike Eleanor & Park, The Fault in Our Stars is so much MORE than a love story or the day-to-day occurrences of its characters, and for these reasons (at least to me), the two books feel completely different and seem worlds apart.

    Why is The Fault in Our Stars such a magical book? To me, it’s because it’s written in the same way magic operates. Magic isn’t fantasy. It exists in the real world, though it seems “other-worldly” and hard for people to understand. It’s mystifying, enjoyable, and terrifying at the same time. It challenges traditional ways of seeing the world. Green tries to capture and verbalize the unknowables and complexities of death and love in a way that’s just like this – mystifying, enjoyable, terrifying, and other-worldly but still based within our knowable reality. Needless to say, I loved this book.

  6. Sophie Barnes says:

    I love this novel. The mature, complex characters of Hazel and Gus made the love story feel believable and authentic. While they began as friends, their relationship naturally grew and developed into a mature romance. They drew on each other for strength, and created a strong bond and partnership. The complexity of the characters and their relationship took age out of the equation, and left us with a wonderful, believable love story.

    Hazel and Gus’s love story was strengthened by the secondary love stories, specifically between Hazel and her mother, and Hazel’s relationship with herself. The line that stuck with me most from the novel is when Hazel’s mother is crying and says, “I won’t be a mom anymore.” There is so much love in the book, but also an underlying sense of sadness and grief that every character is grappling with. John Green tackles the complexities of identity (e.g., what does it mean to be a mother), and creates rich relationships between all characters, not just Hazel and Gus. In doing so, he crafts complex characters with full, developed stories. Hazel grows tremendously throughout the novel. While she begins as a reluctant teen, as her relationship with Gus develops, so does she. Their relationship, and the experiences it brings, provides a space for Hazel to grow and discover herself. On this journey she is able to develop a strong sense of self and matures tremendously, developing a more nuanced identity. As they are confronted with cancer and death, love is even more salient and provides hope.

    I had trouble drawing parallels between this love story and Eleanor and Park. I agree that the love in both novels is powerful and transcends time and/or distance, but the love and relationships in each story feel different. The love story in The Fault in Our Stars feels more powerful, mature, and hopeful.

  7. I remember I first encountered The Fault in Our Stars without being biased by the praises and recommendations of others or the existence of the film adaptation. Having nothing but the book blurb to go on, I was scared that I would be sinking into sickening sentimentality – something melodramatic that milked the cancer situation for all pathos there can be. However, I was wrong about that. The story doesn’t linger on what could have been or drums up angst, thus avoiding the typical land mines of Terminal Illness Love Story. However, I believe the magic of the story rests more on Green’s mastery of pacing and staging, and knack for surprising turns of language, rather than the nature of the characters themselves. While Hazel neither mopes nor is an emotional needy mess, her cynical self-aware banter at times does not seem to fit a typical teenage character. Augustus is even less believable; he comes off as unnecessarily dramatic and one-dimensionally cocky. His ritual with the cigarette seems particularly unnatural, and this stiltedness is just barely redeemed by its function as recurring motif later on. Together, Gus and Hazel’s interactions are like a series of stage flourishes. But the understated beauty of philosophical musings and the moral quandraries woven in does overshadow the awkwardness of characterization. It elevates Hazel and Gus’s situation into something universal. We end up searching The Fault in Our Stars for metaphorical guidance like the way Hazel reads An Imperial Affliction. The books succeeds not because it is a romance set in a background of grappling with life, but because it is a tale of grappling with life whose contours become focused under the lens of romance.

  8. Pook Panyarachun says:

    When my a good friend of mind found out I had to read this book for class he said “Get ready to cry – a lot.” And I have to admit, yes, I did try a whole lot. I like the book but I also hate it in the sense that it really was just so tragic. In love stories you are rooting for the star crossed lover and you just want so badly for things to end happily ever after. Fault in Our Stars beautiful but so tragic and even though from the title one could tell that things will not end nicely with a pink bow I feel that readers still want the satisfactory ended even knowing in the back of their mind that there is a “fault” in it all.
    I really appreciated Warren’s post, which I found was very real and genuine. I can see that many aspects of Fault in Our Stars can bring up difficult feeling regarding terminal illnesses. I would say that yes, we might have to give it to John Green for writing it so well and so real.
    I like that this book caused such a stir with young people. Anything to get them reading!

  9. Rachel Lacks says:

    I had never read The Fault in our Stars, and had been meaning to read it after hearing so much about it from friends regarding its book form, and then from reviews and even more people once it became a movie. I was quite confused to see anyone reacting negatively or critically to it, because it has now become one of my absolute favorite books. Very few other novels really spoke to me in the way this one did. The narration, dialogues, feelings, and descriptions were just so real. This is one of the few novels I read that I felt could have been extracted from real life (perhaps excluding the continuous presence of Van Houten). This was a love story interlaced with characters that demonstrated true courage and hope against unfathomable odds, and who showed that positivity is all we can bring even in the most disheartening of circumstances. I do not think my love for this book comes from my knowledge about how popular or well-received it is, considering I actually expected to dislike it. There are some topics in literature and movies that usually upset me too much to think about, and terminal illnesses is one of those topics. I therefore went into the book assuming I would be too upset by the contents to like it, and was very happily mistaken. The book showed the light of life and love that can shine through, even in the face of sickness and death.

  10. Meredith Morrison says:

    Similar to Nicole’s experience, my first encounter with The Fault in Our Stars was at the demands, not requests, of my students. Knowing my inability to refrain from tearing up at eloquent prose, and compelling characters, they told me I would fall in love right along with Gus and Hazel. I agree with many of my classmates’ points about the transcendence and universality of love stories for teenagers and adults alike. Gus and Hazel’s love was unfairly cut short, but it will remain immortalized in death as Nicole poignantly stated. While I did and always will appreciate playful banter and sarcasm, I did feel as though these two were far beyond their years. (I had several moments where I harkened back to one of my favorite shows Dawson’s Creek.) The “normal” worries of a teenager: having a date for prom, saving for a car, or future college plans feel insignificant as Gus and Hazel’s tomorrow is never promised.
    To Sophie’s point, I found myself gravitated not only to the young lovers, but to each of their families. Hazel’s parents’ utter dedication to her health, her experiences, and her life often left me misty eyed. Just as Hazel so often felt frozen or stuck in her body and in her life, her mother remained “stuck” solely in her role as Hazel’s mother. As Sophie mentioned, with Hazel’s death would also come her mother’s end of being “a mom.” After I wiped the tears from my face, I couldn’t help but empathize with her. She felt just as vulnerable as her daughter, for she has no control over her daughter’s illness, life, and death. Perhaps I was so gravitated toward the mother because I’ve personally felt debilitated and useless when caring for someone with cancer. My girlfriend’s aunt was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and I’ve seen her physical appearance drastically change, like Gus’s, in such a short amount of time. Her 8 year old son Jake, born with Down’s Syndrome, doesn’t understand why Mommy has no hair and can’t play with him in the snow, and I don’t understand why either. The Fault in Our Stars is absolutely a story of love, but it is also a story about the impermanence of life and the inevitably of death. I have and always will love love stories because it helps us cope with the idea of eventually leaving this earth. Even though our bodies stop working, our love and love for one another will always remain.

  11. Liz Goodenough says:

    After watching the movie of The Fault in Our Stars with my eighth-grade cousin, I asked her what she thought was special about this story, what made it so touching, so magical. She said that it made her really think about how lucky we are and how many possibilities life has. It did what really great stories do: it completely transports and immerses the reader while also pressing us to reflect on our own lives. Watching John Green’s vlog, it seems this was exactly his intention. He wanted to share the fanaa (loss of one’s self) he had while writing the book and for the readers to feel all of the things: to laugh and to cry while reading.

    In part, the love story in The Fault in Our Stars in magical because the characters inhabit a world where it makes sense for them to be existential and deep and passionate and selfless and completely devoted all of the time. The way that love stories set around terminal illness, war, or impending separation do. Meredith and Nicole both discussed that brevity and immortality of the love between Gus and Hazel. There are so many great quotes and turns of phrase in this novel that are both eloquent and accessible for thinking about life, love, death. While Hazel and Gus did not come across like typical teenagers, that’s part of the point. Because they are living in sped-up, constricted world, the can quickly cut to the heart of things, without, as it was mentioned above, ever having to cope with love and relationships over time.

    For me, this novel was a beautiful (and sad and funny and insightful) moment in time. I really appreciated Emily’s theory that YA fiction gives adolescents and appropriate vantage point to explore the mysteries of sex and death. While for some readers like Warren, the book may be way too close to home, for many readers it gives us access to a world in which we can cut right to the chase about how to live.

  12. Catherine Healy says:

    As other commenters have already said, there is something irresistible about stories of lovers whose relationships are cut short by forces beyond their control — whether death (as in The Fault in Our Stars, Romeo & Juliet, A Walk to Remember, Love Story …) or another outside force (as in Eleanor & Park). These stories feel magical, I think, because the magical sensation of first being in love is the only part we see. Julian Barnes captured this feeling well in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters: “Love may or may not produce happiness; whether or not it does in the end, its primary effect is to energize. Have you ever talked so well, needed less sleep, returned to sex so eagerly, as when you were first in love?” This energy radiates from every page of Hazel and Gus’s shared story, just as it does for Eleanor and Park. The story concludes before the lovers’ passion begins to fade: We never see Eleanor starting to think that Park’s punk obsession is getting a little old, or Gus and Hazel sharing an apartment and bickering about whose turn it is to take the recycling out. And because the reader’s perspective is always that of the lover(s), it is easy to know what to root for. There is little moral ambiguity in this style of romance novel — the forces for good are those that attempt to keep the lovers together, and the forces for evil are those that conspire to drive them apart.

    For me, what distinguished The Fault in Our Stars from, say, a Lurlene McDaniel novel or another “cancer book” (as Hazel noted early in the story, “cancer books suck”) was not its characters or its story, but its directness about the experience of being a teenager with cancer. Hazel, Gus, and the other “cancer kids” in the book are not heroes or angels. Hazel notes that Gus’s prosthetic leg is a turn-off and assumes her oxygen tank will be equally off-putting to him; she feels legitimately tired most of the time, but also uses fatigue as an excuse to avoid people or activities she doesn’t want to face; Hazel, Gus, and Isaac all greet their illness with varying degrees of frustration, depression, and rage. As Warren noted, TFIOS had a real and raw quality about it that made it a painful — but also a resonant and memorable — read.

  13. Amy Lipton says:

    “What creates the magic in a love story, the stuff that makes us fall hopelessly in love alongside the characters?”

    There are a few critical aspects of The Fault in Our Stars that really created the magic for me. In many ways, this is a predictable teenage romance and love story. And yet, the cutting honesty and occasional plot twists truly work to create a highly emotional and engaging story. The subject is quite uncomfortable, almost taboo. No one wants to think about two terminally ill teenagers. I thought the book was an incredibly well written, eye-opening look into that experience. Everyone, unfortunately, has some connection to cancer; yet most people are afraid to talk about it, or even worse, ask questions. This book does a wonderful job removing any barrier to the topic. Hazel and Gus give us an unfiltered, beautiful window into their battles, their bravery, and their passionate love for one another.

  14. I’m not sure what to add here. I resisted reading this book for a very long time and over the clamoring of my students, and I ended up reading it this week while spending time with a family very dear to me dealing with a recent death in the family from cancer and a very recent (Wednesday) diagnosis of another person in the family. I guess I’m having a hard time thinking about the style and structure – the *writing* of the book, as opposed to the sadness of the story.

    Like Warren, I can’t see myself every picking this book up again, and I honestly can’t fathom how anybody who read it would want to see it dramatized on screen. Not only am I having a hard time picturing what my reading would have been like had it not already been so built up – I was so braced for the sadness – I also can’t quite imagine how I would have reacted to the book when I was a teenager. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it. How can one not think of loved ones and friends who have suffered illness?

    That said, I appreciate that my students have read this book and found it to be an intense and meaningful reading experience. The characters were tremendously likable, and the dialogue was paced well.

  15. Kara Brennan says:

    Like so many others, I think that TFIOS is so magical to people, and so upsetting to others, is because it is grounded in a reality that so many people have witnessed. Unlike a Romeo and Juliet or Eleanor and Park, these kids know they are “ticking time bombs.” They know their time, both together and on this earth, are finite, and that makes their relationship all the more rare, special, and emotionally charged. It makes the story that much more tragic, and incredibly joyous, for their parents in the story and the readers at home to witness these kids get to fall in love for the first time at the very end. But reading it as an adult I also appreciate that they have such a mature, open, and honest relationship full of mutual respect and genuine affection for each other as friends. I’d much rather have kids reading this than a soapy love story or a Twilight, where the relationships are based on fear and scent.

    I can also see why it turned so many of you off who have dealt or are dealing with similar circumstances. My mom also picked it up after some students were raving about it, and as someone who had a sick child she was upset for weeks. I think that does have something to do with the writing, as Warren said, but it doesn’t make it any less painful.

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