by Nick Lontz, AmeriCorps member serving on the Westfield Capital Management team with Mildred Avenue K-8 School
John Green's masterpiece, The Fault in Our Stars, is the perfect counterpoint to YA zeitgeists like the Twilight series. In a world where most teen romances tend to revolve around overdramatic and even unhealthy relationships, The Fault in Our Stars is a rare thing: a novel that aims to make its reader think, to challenge and inspire them.
The hero of the story is 16-year old-Hazel Grace, a precocious young girl with a fatal type of lung cancer. In her support group, which she loathes, Hazel meets Augustus Waters, a charming young cancer survivor whose battle scars include a missing leg. Augustus is the type of person who pretends to smoke cigarettes for the sake of a metaphor. Hazel is depressed and bides her time reading the same gloomy book over and over. What bonds these two kids together, more so than their cancers, is their intellectual pursuits. They swap books and soon after fall in love.
The thing that sets TFIOS apart from most YA literature is its treatment of heavy existential ideas, ideas that one might normally have had to turn to prolix philosophers to engage with, but that have been made accessible here by Green’s simple, elegant prose. Augustus’s main goal in life is to make some kind of positive impact on the world (much like the heroes in the video games he plays). In contrast, Hazel fears the impact that her life will leave behind, and in one section compares herself to a grenade whose detonation/death will harm everyone she cares about. The young couple’s biggest fight comes when Hazel calls Augustus out for his hero complex, arguing that a life with zero repercussions can be just as noble—if not more so—as a life with many. And in the end, Augustus cedes to Hazel’s point-of-view, writing in a letter not meant for her:
The marks humans leave are too often scars. You build a hideous minimall or start a coup or try to become a rock star and you think, "They’ll remember me now," but (a) they don’t remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars. Your coup becomes a dictatorship. Your minimall becomes a lesion. Hazel is different. . . . Hazel knows the truth: We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.
What is the definition of a life well lived?
Is it moral to want to be remembered?
Getting teens to engage with these types of weighty questions is no easy task, but Green pulls it off flawlessly.