The Fault in Our Stars: Read This Young Adult Book, No Matter How Old You Are

GeekMom Reviews
Photo: Dutton Books
© Dutton Books

I’m not as in tune with the Young Adult book world as I used to be, back when I worked in a library in Upstate New York and hung out with the teen librarian on my slow Thursday night shifts. This book I’m going to tell you that you must, absolutely must read, was not on my radar five days ago even though it’s been on the best seller lists for a ridiculously long time.

It’s called The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green, and either you’ve read its reviews, read it yourself, or have a teen in your house who has read it. Or, not unlike me, until this very moment you had never even heard of it.

I read a lot. I mainly dig into non-fiction stuff. Memoir is my genre of choice, but I love learning new ways to look at the world so overall I stick pretty close to reading stuff that’s true. Every once in a great while I dive into a novel, if someone I trust recommends it and if the premise sounds interesting enough. But in general, I figure that if it isn’t true, what’s the use?

Then a book like this one falls on my lap. I’m not exaggerating to say this book changed my life. A book that’s not even true changed my life. Trippy, right? It has been stuck so tightly to my brain in the three days since I finished it that I was forced to do some research and start asking around about it. The more I uncovered, the more I loved this book.

This book relies a lot on events that, if I explain them in detail, will truly spoil the experience for you. So let me say, up front, there will be no spoilers here. I care too much about this book, and how it might change your life too, to allow that happen.

Instead I will break down in a few brief comments why I think it would be in your best interest to find yourself a copy of this book (if you are parenting a teen there may even be a school library copy already in your house) and dig in.

1) Let’s get the hard stuff out of the way. This book is about three kids who meet in a kid’s cancer support group, where two of them begin to fall for each other. Yeah, I know. Depressing and sad, right out of the gate. Not for me, you’re thinking. But please stay with me.

This book is an inspection of life. It’s a peek into the world of these three kids, who have a bit more on their plate than the average teenager, and they react according to their personalities. And, lucky for us, they are all pretty much smart asses when allowed to be. They are funny, witty, and fun to hang out with. They just happen to have cancer. Yes, it’s a sad book. If you have a heart beating in your chest (and a child you love tucked into a bed in your house), you will cry. But I promise you will also laugh. And come out the other side a different person.

2) It’s a yummy gooey love story. No, the characters are not yummy and gooey. They are as realistic as teenagers come in literature (and real life) today. But the feelings are perfectly felt. There is clever flirting, balanced so perfectly with occasional health and life setbacks. These kids deal with cancer while living their lives, the cancer is not in charge.

This is a book I would have eaten up as a teenager, wishing some cute boy (who happened to have cancer) would flirt with me, pursue me, and make me feel special, like the character Gus in the book.

3)  I have to throw this in somewhere. The main character in the book has an artificial leg. And it’s no big deal. It’s just a part of who he is, like the color of his eyes or the wave in his hair. As an amputee myself I appreciate this detail. There are moments in the book where you are reminded of his “difference”, like when he is slower to get up off the ground after a picnic, but it doesn’t define him. For 99.9% of the story, it’s a non-issue. I love that millions of people are devouring this book and making peace with the fact that an artificial leg doesn’t have to define a person. A personal thank you, from me to you, Mr. John Green.

4)  This book is smart. I’m a writer but my own personal education is sorely lacking in what I’d call the classics. This book is full of references to famous poems and classic literary works. They are perfectly and realistically woven in, just enough for an expert to appreciate, but not enough to confuse a classic lit novice like me. In fact, it made me want to stop and take careful consideration of the parts I didn’t take to naturally, so I could feel them and understand them better before I moved on. Even the title comes from a quote of Shakespeare, the meaning of which I can’t explain without backing out of that promise I made to you about spoilers.

5) This is one of those books that is full of lines and paragraphs that you want to go back and read them over again. They are just so beautiful and perfectly placed that you’ll want to write them down. Then you realize it would only make you remember that part of the book, which will make you sad, and you have just got to stop feeling sad about kids who don’t even exist in the real world.

Just an example, which is beautiful, even if you’ve not read the book and aren’t fully invested in these characters:

After she’s tried so hard to fight having feelings for Gus, because she cares for him too much to hurt him if she gets worse, Hazel listens to him read a passage from one of her favorite books and shares with us, “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” (Swoon….refer back to number 2 above)

6) Now to the part about how it changed my life and might just change yours. I’ve always been a person who appreciates life. Growing up surrounded by foster siblings, I was intimately aware of how lucky I was to have a safe home and loving parents. A trip to build orphanages in Haiti when I was 15 locked in my gratitude, when I saw what true poverty looks like.

But life sometimes clips on. There are work deadlines, personal expectation deadlines, kids with never ending needs, and pets that know the exact right time to throw up a hairball on the living room couch. It can eat the life-thankfulness out of the best of us. We know we should be grateful. With all of our head we know. But sometimes it takes a minor reboot to remind our hearts.

The kids in this book, kids who have no guarantee that they’ll ever get to worry about paying a car payment or helping a toddler through the flu, try to find peace with the little bit of an unstable promise they have for the future. They don’t worry about the years ahead, they hope and beg for a few extra days and (God willing) months ahead. And in the process, take in stride the terrible side effects cancer threw their way (like damaged lungs and loss of limbs).

Don’t misunderstand me. These characters are not just characters. They very quickly become real children to you. It helps that their parents are represented fully, in all of the despair and confusion that must come when you have a child with cancer. But these kids are not mini Mother Theresas. They are normal teens, who get ticked off and like to smart off to their elders every now and then.

But just watching their journeys, you slowly come to see what life looks like, when you are not guaranteed another handful of years. Not guaranteed the chance to live through teen angst that inevitably leads to a handful of rocky years in your 20s as you find your place in the world. Their tomorrow is not guaranteed. And most of them wouldn’t even dream of ever being a full-fledged grownup.

It almost makes me appreciate the bills I must balance this month, and that list of household chores a mile long that never seems to get done. Because, by golly, I’m here to do those things. If I watch what I eat and look both ways when I cross the street, I have a good chance of having a few more decades left. I don’t take it for granted on purpose. I just don’t have to live with the idea that those years won’t ever happen for me.

Reading this book, and knowing these kids, you start to see what it must be like to have an expiration date drawing near and what you’d do if you truly knew it was all almost over.

In the past three days I’ve taken the time to stop what I was doing, turn my head, and look my 12-year-old in the face, as he wanted to share a very long, convoluted story about something that happened at school. I’ve pulled up a few of my favorite music videos on You Tube and allowed myself to thoroughly enjoy them, before I pulled up the more sinister web sites that led to getting my to do list done. I didn’t beat myself up, that I should be doing this or that… I just sat back in my office chair and even closed my eyes a couple of times, soaking in the music that makes me happy. I allowed myself to feel joy deliberately.

I’ve stopped seeing the creation of dinner as a chore that just takes me away from the things I really want to do or the things I should be doing (like just one more load of laundry). I see it as a time to be still with myself, and chop veggies and stir noodles as an act of love for the people I love and care about. A way that I get to take care of them, because I’m here, and I’m healthy and able.

7) Let’s make this my last point. I’m not the only one who gets this message, loud and clear, from this entertaining, heartbreaking book about some kids who happen to have cancer. As I read this book in public, I had more than a few people comment as they walked by, “Great book! I’ve read that!” And I’m not just talking grownups. I’m talking a lot of teenagers.

I love that teens are reading this story and getting many of the same things I’ve gotten out of it, but in their own brand. The exposure to good storytelling, great character development, and funny writing is all good and well. But seeing life with new eyes can be downright life-saving in the teen years.

One dad, a friend of mine, stopped to sit next to me in the Recreation Center lobby where I was devouring chapter after chapter, and he shared with me that his daughter had read it. He dropped the level of his voice to almost a whisper, and then honestly shared with me how his teen daughter was struggling so painfully with bullying. School officials were doing all they could, but there wasn’t much real relief. Then she read this book. Suddenly she was talking to him about how there was a bigger life out there for her, some day, when silly middle school was over. And she started to see that she could live outside of that ring of torment that seemed to find her every time she walked through the school halls. This dad was deeply grateful for a silly little book about a few kids with cancer.

Before I run out of space I have to tell you that this story came from the experiences that Mr. Green had as a hospital chaplain in a children’s hospital. It came from the real life of a little girl he really knew, who died of cancer at sixteen and stirred something so deep in him that he had to get her personality on paper. Trust me, once you read the book, these details will matter to you.

Until then, know this about Mr. Green—he worked so hard on writing a sound, funny, logical book that he couldn’t see it was a sad book until they started filming the movie version and he saw the scenes being acted out in front of him. According to his own Twitter account, he regularly cries on set.

It’s that well written. It’s that well thought out. It’s that worth reading for yourself.

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23 thoughts on “The Fault in Our Stars: Read This Young Adult Book, No Matter How Old You Are

  1. I just wanted to say that John Green sent me here from his facebook. And I adore your review of his novel. I’m only 23 and I’ve read it about 3 times. It’s so incredibly touching and I can’t wait to see the movie.

  2. I only knew to read this review because John Green shared it on his Facebook page. He said he was touched by it, and I am too. I lived this book for many of the reasons you said. I really appreciate the way you’ve tried to avoid spoilers for all of the people who haven’t read it.

  3. Lovely (and spot-on) review of a lovely book. I’m pretty sure reading it changed my life too. 48 hours later, I genuinely miss those 3 kids and have a feeling I always will. I too hadn’t heard of it until I read it the other night and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. Then to find out there’s a movie coming next summer? I might need to invest in kleenex if a movie version can even remotely do this novel justice.

  4. Thnks for a review that captured the heart-wrenching beauty of John Greens book in such a poignant and lovely way. When I read TFIOS I started writing down all the lines that knocked me off my feet – like the falling in love slowly then all at once line – until I realized there were just too many of them! It feels so good to be moved, doesn’t it? And thus, to be alive. Since this just came onto your radar, do you know about the upcoming film version with Shailene Woodley as Hazel? Or Hazel Grace as Gus would say. I Loved her in The Descendants!, I think she’ll be perfect.

  5. Yes! I think you really captured the book without giving anything away, which is truly impressive. Since you liked TFiOS so much, I recommend checking out youtube.com/vlogbrothers, the channel where John Green and his brother Hank talk several times a week about important things in the world, build thoughtful community, and are sometimes just really silly. 🙂

  6. I absolutely adore this book. I think this is an excellent review. I came out the other side feeling different too.

    You’ve just reminded me how much I want to reread it.

  7. It depresses me to hear people look down on fiction. The vast majority of our greatest literary works are fiction, grounded in reality or not. Fiction allows a writer to comment on society in such a way that the reader doesn’t necessarily feel bombarded by a message. Non-fiction is either “this is what happened”, or “I felt ABC because of XYZ”, or “you should think this because I said so”. Most of the time, if the author is trying to convey a message beyond a historical lesson, the only people listening are those that want to hear it.

    By connecting with characters in a fictional story, the reader may come to appreciate a viewpoint from the other side of the table, or recognize an issue in society previously unknown to him- or herself. Yes, the market is flooded with cheap novels that have little value beyond the entertainment gained from reading it, but then there’s Fahrenheit 451. The entire works of Shakespeare. The Grapes of Wrath. A Prayer for Owen Meany is easily one of the best things I have ever read. Hell, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had enough value in my high school senior novels class teacher’s eyes, that he had everyone in the class purchase a copy to read, and the only reason we didn’t read it in class is because we spent more time reading A Prayer for Owen Meany (which we also had to buy) than he expected because the entire class wanted to discuss it endlessly. Every last one of us read Fear and Loathing outside of class, and then discussed it with friends later.

    While I have not read The Fault in Our Stars, I am glad you found substantial value in it. Great fiction can speak to us in ways that no other medium can.

  8. I agree with you Justin. I meant no ill will by commenting about the fact I mainly read non-fiction. And I hope you are finding better non fiction than the stuff you described. I devour amazing memoirs, that amaze me, as I see how many different kinds of life journeys there are. I also eat up books like Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, which really challenged me to think about how I think about animals, and fascinated me with its description of other cultures and animals. I encourage you to look into some of the good non fiction out there, that is not preachy.
    But as far as the fiction argument, I agree that I discount it too quickly, until I find a book like this one, that challenges my thinking. A friend put it well for me: ” Incidentally, that book is a great example of why fiction is “useful.” Think of nonfic as the data and fic as the thought experiment: given these conditions, what might happen? You can see a situation play out all kinds of ways in novels”.
    I couldn’t agree more.

    Judy

  9. Fabulous review for a fantastic book! I just finished it today and I can tell it will stay with me for a long time. The romance is lovely, the cancer is written with honesty, it’s funny in parts and sad in parts – it’s just a beautiful book. I’m so glad my sixteen year old daughter passed it on to me.

  10. That was as close to a perfect review as I have found on TFiOS and I have to say I’ve read MANY of them. You captured so much about the book without even the slightest spoiler; that is a feat unto itself. I’m so glad John tweeted this link, and so happy you got something wonderful out of it. I’m also happy you were able to quantify and describe what you have gotten out of it.

  11. As a teen who has read TFIOS more than 3 times in the last 12 months, I agree that your review accurately captures the parts of the book I really love. And for anyone who is still on the fence about reading the book, just read it. Everyone that I know who has read it gets a slightly different message from it and if you don’t like messages in books, read it for the beautiful way the words were formed. John Green is an artist with his words, which leads to some of the best quotes I have ever read. And be prepared to feel a whole roller coaster of emotions. Just enjoy the ride.

  12. Thank you for this amazing review of The Fault in Our Stars. For a long time whenever someone asked me what it was about I was speechless when it came to describing it. If you tell what it’s typically about teenagers that have cancer people will immediately knock it off their reading list. So, I’d just say the book is utterly life changing just read it. For lack of a better way of saying how this book makes me feel I’ll just say, I feel the same way about John Green’s writing as Hazel feel’s about An Imperial Affliction.

  13. My 14yr old daughter’s BFF was reading this during carpool a couple weeks ago and recommended it HIGHLY to me. I snapped a pic of the cover to remind myself, and just picked it up at the library today….your words are timely and now I really, really can’t wait to start it.

  14. Thanks for a heartfelt review! You mentioned the young girl who died of cancer at sixteen and to whom the book is dedicated. We were privileged to know Esther her entire too-short-life-on-this-earth; her family are dear friends of ours. You and your readers might be interested in knowing that a book will soon be published containing Esther Earl’s journals and other writings along with pictures and essays by her parents. I know you will be touched and inspired by reading “This Star Won’t Go Out”.

  15. I’m just wondering what age is appropriate for this book. The movie trailers indicates sexual content, but how far does it go? My 11 year old loves the Divergent series & seeing Shaylene Woodley in this movie make her want to read this book.

  16. I am not sure how the sexual content will be handled in the movie but it was very tasteful in the book. It happens about 2/3 of the way in, on the trip to Amsterdam, so I’d suggest reading that part yourself, before you let your daughter read it. Eleven is such a subjective age, and I don’t know your daughter, so want to be cautious about my recommendations (have four of my own, who have all been very ‘different’ at age 11!) I think you would get through the whole book pretty quickly, and I’ve been told (by Mr Green himself even) that the movie follows the book VERY closely, and I’d believe that, by the PG-13 rating.

    Feel free to message me if you have further questions. I’d love to help if I can (even finding the page numbers you might need, so you can ‘skim’ it in the store if need be…)

    GeekMom Judy

    1. Thank you so much Judy! My daughter is on the mature side of 11 and we’ve read the book Fuse by Julianna Baggott which has one sexual scene as well. She’s now started this book, but I’ll be sure to go through the Amsterdam part with her.

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