(This post contains spoilers for The Fault in Our Stars… also, I wrote this as part of my application for MFA programs in spring 2017—and it worked!)
Upon a first read, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) might seem to be chiefly concerned with death. Indeed, the gut-wrenching novel about star-crossed teens is filled with morbidity and mortality—it has to be, for it is about terminal cancer. Hazel Grace Lancaster, bright and practical, knows that sand is falling through the hourglass of her short life. There’s no question that she will die, it’s when she will, likely when the miracle drug trial she is on fails to work or loses funding or she contracts an illness that would fatally cripple her compromised immune system.
When Hazel meets Augustus Waters, aka Gus, at a church-basement support group for kids with cancer, she is intrigued by his easygoing-yet-blunt attitude. Gus smashes the defense-mechanism cage where Hazel guards her love and trust captive. Earlier Grace confessed to her mother that, “I’m like. Like. I’m a grenade, Mom. I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?” (Green 99). Later, Gus responds to Hazel’s fear of intimacy with, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind, Hazel Grace. It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you” (Green 176). Gus knows his heart is screwed either way, so he might as well have it wrecked by the woman he loves. He’s dying, and so is Hazel. (And so are we.) Gus, though, dies first. The final pages belong to Gus’ letter to Hazel’s favorite author. Gus tells Van Houten that pain is unavoidable, that, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers” (Green 313). Now, in the final lines of the novel, Hazel addresses Gus directly in the first person present tense: “I do, Augustus. / I do” (Green 313). The “do” indicates that Hazel has survived, that she is still alive. She is not casualty of cancer, not yet, but love, and she would make the same choices again. Still, she stands memorial to Gus and devotes her narrative to tracing how he changed her life. She reflects on her life before and during her time with Gus. But Green gives one other layer; for Hazel, there is a time after this painful chapter in her life. She survives, she endures, and consequently so does Gus.
Those final words, “I do,” hearken back to the opening paragraph. John Green brilliantly subverts the raw transience pumping through the compromised blood of Hazel and her fellow cancer kids in the very first paragraph of the book. Hazel opens her story with:
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death. (Green 3)
Hazel’s narrative is established through a framework of Hazel processing her past. The key is in the opening words—Late in the winter of my seventeenth year…—this clues the reader in that Hazel is going to narrate her story from the perspective of the present reflecting on the past (Green 3). Hazel the narrator is, then, likely older than seventeen, certainly by emotional maturity. She has lived on past her fellow cancer warriors, her friends, the love of her life. But she has endured, and The Fault in Our Stars captures her quest to make sense out of the chaos an incurable, terminal epidemic chokes us of youth, innocence, life…and love.
I have always been fascinated with frameworks like this going back to high school when I reread the cracked-spine, dog-eared copy of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) that I carried with me wherever I went. Like many others, I memorized that first line:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (Salinger 3).
Holden spoke presumably from a mental hospital or some treatment center. He tries to create a coherent record of how he got from a lousy childhood to a controlled environment where someone would try to “cure” him. Similarly, I spent one luxurious summer reading through Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way before my senior year of high school. I pondered these two accounts, Holden’s attempt to process his insanity and Proust’s belief that it could all begin with the taste of a madeleine, like the Rosebud sled in Citizen Kane, one of my favorite films.
In my fall semester of college, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had to suddenly parse out symptoms I had experienced most of my eighteen years. To help my therapist, I read old journals, emails, asked my friends and family to clarify my memory’s blind spots. I sorted through my very own existence, trying to write a coherent narrative (“patient history”) that would help me pull out of my emotional agony. And eventually I did.
When I started writing more seriously, I thought back to Proust and Salinger and to two of my recent favorite novels, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) and The Secret History (1992). Each narrator uses a similar framework. Theo, the hero of The Goldfinch, attempts to make sense of the trauma that has dominated his life since the day his mother was killed in a terrorist attack when he was a young teenager. Likewise, The Secret History is an account by protagonist and narrator, Richard, of the intense friendships he had in college. As I have sought to define my own writer’s voice, these books have influenced my fiction for young adults.
Many young adult novels I read are written in present tense. The events are happening to the characters in real time. Yet I have resisted using the present tense because adolescence is one of the very first times we start looking at our lives as a story—one we can write to sort out our past, and define our own future. In the opening paragraphs of the contemporary YA romance I am writing, Charlotte notes how her mental health challenges are packaged to fit into her father’s journey from Appalachian son to decorated marine, law student, and congressman running for the presidency. Charlotte’s attempt to take control of her life and her narrative—moving from being just a secondary character in other people’s stories to the protagonist of her journey—makes her a dynamic heroine. Charlotte has always wanted to be a writer, but in this novel, she realizes how she can be the author of her image, her relationships, and her future. One of the messages I want to convey to young adult readers is that you don’t have to be defined by anyone else. You can be the author of your own life.
To return to The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel’s narration is so important because it implies that Hazel, at least for some time, has survived, that she has processed her grief and can view an extraordinarily painful chapter of her life with hindsight, that she can write Gus’ story, not someone who did not know him. Hazel’s story is a memorial to Gus. Through Hazel, Gus will be remembered as more than just an anonymous statistic or a handsome face in a newspaper obituary picture. He will be remembered as the complicated young man who taught her to walk straight into the war zone that first—and last—love envelops us in. As much as Hazel’s story focuses on Gus, the last lines show her own growth as she has learned to embrace love and intimacy. She will die one day. So will the reader. So live life and make it your own. Write your story. That is the kind of message I strive to convey in my fiction.
Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. Penguin, 2012.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.