22 January 2013

Tournament of Books '13: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

Writer Claire Zulkey wrote a piece for WBEZ recently on "cry crack," media whose primary output is to make its consumers cry. She singled out a scene from "Dumbo," although the example I normally reach for in this case is the opening from a more recent Disney(-affiliated) film, the Pixar production "Up." I'm not linking to it because I'm not a monster, and also if I look for it I'll probably start weeping myself.

"How is it legal that Disney could ever share something so sad with the whole world?" Zulkey asks about her "Dumbo" clip, but it seems fairly clear why we don't start banning stuff this sad (besides all that free-speech goodness and the importance of prioritizing the things we want to ban). Catharsis can be kind of nice in the right place. It's why summer camp ends with a big campfire and songs about how friendship is eternal. It's how a real-life tragedy of marriage and amnesia gets made into "The Vow." The word catharsis was first used by Aristotle as a medical term, and whether or not there are provable benefits to that whoosh of relief after letting that strong emotion out, it's still an identifiable feeling.

And so we come to THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the tale of two teenagers with cancer who fall in love after meeting at a support group for teenagers with cancer. I carried it home from the library thinking to myself "Oh boy, get ready to cry this weekend!" and steeled myself appropriately. I lasted about 96 pages. Emotionally, I found this book incredibly effective, even though its narrative weakness led me to question it later.

The strengths of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS are quite clear: Narrator Hazel is not a Movie-of-the-Week heroine, and her navigating her path between her sameness as a teenager (going to school, having a crush, fighting with her parents) and the difference of having cancer is vivid and sharp. When she meets and falls in love with Gus, who lost his leg to osteosarcoma, their relationship is all about and not at all about their collective health  And of course, the most identifiable thing about Hazel for me (and many readers I'm guessing) is her obsession with her favorite book, which is also about a young person with cancer -- something she shares with Gus that becomes a passion for them together. (This fictional book has, of course, its own fairly impassioned but spoilery thread on Goodreads already.)

So why was I not as caught up as I felt I should have been? Of the people I know who have read this book, almost all loved it and they really loved it. I felt almost guilty in a way that I was plagued by questions about the realism of some of the plot turns (which I won't spoil here, but for those playing at home: when Hazel gets authorized, and what she gets authorized to do). These moments happened much more frequently in the second half of the book, which I would characterize as more serious and dramatic, just when I thought I should be digging into the plot further.

I think the main element that pulled me out was the characterization of Gus, Hazel's fellow fighter and object of her crush. I didn't find him to be a fully realized character, and he often acted in ways that contradicted what we already knew about him. Teenagers, of course, are not always known for their consistency, but Hazel's own actions seemed to fit into a larger pattern, whereas his made no sense. And I don't want to go out on a limb here and say that teenage boys like that don't exist, but in an R.L. Stine/ Christopher Pike book his sweetness would definitely be Act I to something really evil. For a time I thought there was going to be a twist that (and this is not what happens, so: un-spoiler alert?) he was actually a hallucination brought on by Hazel's experimental drug-taking. I'm sorry! You have to admit that would have been kind of cool!

Of course, the argument could be made that we see Gus subjectively through Hazel, so of course he seems like the best person to ever walk the face of the earth -- and Hazel's crush causes her to see him in a rosier light than seems necessary. I don't believe this interpretation, but I'm open to discussion.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS may be "cry crack" for a lot of people, and it wasn't exactly for me. But it brought to mind other books of my youth in which characters die or disappear forever, and how incredibly invested I was in that sadness and the act of grieving over those people. Green's YA audience may see this book similarly, and I can see why they attach to it. It wouldn't be correct, though, to say that I enjoyed this book. I experienced it, and it gave me a lot of pause, and in the end I indeed felt that whoosh of cathartic relief.


jess said...

the "cry crack" totally worked for me, but I was working through some feelings when i read it and my reaction may have been unreasonably strong. i did like the book a great deal, however. it scratched the itch, which is not something i would say about, say, Gone Girl.

i am baffled when you refer to hazel being authorized to do something. i don't know what you mean and it's bugging me.

i felt like augustus was kind of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy character. i believed in him.

Ellen said...

Oh, he totally IS a Manic Pixie Dream Boy! I wanted to believe, I really did. I just found him so unreal and affected, as I might not have back when I was a teenager.

Okay, so still trying not to spoil anything (even though I know you've read it): there's a scene where Hazel and her parents meet with their medical team where she's getting permission to do something... that's the plot turn I'm thinking of, where they say one thing, and it's a Big Deal, and two pages later it's like "Never mind!" From a plotting perspective I can see why it happened like that, but it seemed like a lot of emotional weight and authority was invested in that meeting for nothing. It felt contrived.

jess s said...

Hmm. That didn't really bug me. My dad has terminal cancer and it seems like every time he wants to do something like go on vacation or have dental work or whatever, the doctors and treatment team are always like "yes... well, maybe. wait, no! no! wait, yes!! Well, only if you have this one treatment first and jump around in a circle backwards three times."

Ellen said...

I'm sorry about your dad. If you say it's like that, I believe you! I guess the author just didn't sell me on it what with "their word is final... oh wait just kidding, you got all disappointed for nothing."

jess s said...

The medical establishment is weird like that, right? There's a lot of negotiation and guessing/second-guessing. They don't know everything --- especially in Hazel's case with her magical experimental drug and magically prolonged life.

jess s said...

oh man, this reminded me of you.