Monday, November 11, 2013
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
There is a genre of teen fiction I call the "Afflicted Teen Novel."
In the books of this genre, one or more of the sensitive teen characters are dealing with various afflictions - mental illness, drug addiction, abuse, suicidal thoughts, some disease, a physical disability, and so on.
In the worst of the books, we get a superficial and perhaps even improbable plot, a lot of whining, dense/smothering/absent parents, smart alec banter, and, very often, gratuitous abuse of drugs/alcohol and some sex.
In the best, we get some of the same teen fiction conventions, but in more restrained doses or they actually make sense given the characters or plot, and some depth of thought and feeling.
Some of the latter even get raised to the level of "literature" - think Catcher in the Rye.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, falls into the second category, with cancer being the affliction of the moment.
It includes some of the usual teen affliction novel clichés, but handles them reasonably well, is not too unbelievable in terms of plot, and even includes intelligent references to literature - the title is a play on a line from Julius Caesar, and there are citations from William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, and a Shakespearean sonnet, and discussion of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Heck, there's even a reclusive writer whose book touches teen souls (Salinger?).
It remains to be seen if it will be embraced the way Catcher was, but it is certainly a far better read that most of the books in the genre - or even many adult works of so-called literature being foisted on us these days.
And oh boy, there's a movie coming out.
Green is a good writer, so it's an enjoyable read (if a book about people suffering and dying from cancer can be called enjoyable). Yes, there are bits of it that seem a little implausible. And the sarcastic lead teens and reclusive writer all tend to talk in the same smart alec well-read intelligent way - there were times I wondered if I could remove the name of who was speaking and not be sure which of the three was wise cracking and profounding at me. But I did want to read on, and not just to get it over with as I do with some books. Some of the dialogue really is clever and amusing. Some of the feelings and thoughts of the narrator came across as genuine and realistic.
A confession: I read the book only because several people had recommended that I put it on my senior English independent reading list among all the heavy works there (Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, Conrad, etc.) to give a little variety and as something the less-motivated readers might actually read. (Did I mention there's a movie coming out - a sure way to get teens reading?) I didn't add it to the list officially, but I said I would allow some other books if students came requesting them individually, and some girls did ask for permission to read it, which I granted. Book reports are due next week so I figured I better get to it.
Having read it, I can see why it is popular and recommended. But I do have some reservations. The language is sometimes vulgar, though not consistently or blatantly offensively so, and, sadly, realistic for many teens. There is a loss-of-virginity moment involving a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old that's handled discreetly, though as if it's a normal part of dating life and separated from moral implications. I'm sure it will get praise for the use of a condom - SAFE SEX! - but also that few will notice the fuller implications of the choice the young couple makes and its potential influence on young readers.
I don't know if I will permit it next year. Still mulling that one over.
I also don't know if, given the genre, adults will want to read this book unless, like me, they have to.
But given that 50 Shades of Gray and its vile sequels are still on best seller lists, this book would be a better choice. There's no perverse sex, and some Shakespeare gets sprinkled in.
Pax et bonum