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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

TFIOS Redux

Ok, I successfully finished reading The Fault in Our Stars for the second time.
I'll just go ahead and directly answer the big question: did I like it better the second time?
Short answer: Yes, I did; but only slightly.

I've included pretty much all of my opinions about this book, so this is going to be a pretty long and boring post, so only keep reading if you really care what I think.

My Rating

While reading the book, I tried to focus on the positive by making notes on what I liked about the book, but I was also honest in evaluating how I felt about each chapter. My evaluations resulted in a "liked", "neutral", or "didn't like" verdict for each chapter. Honestly the results kind of surprised me. Out of 25 chapters, I "liked" 11 of them, was neutral about 10, and didn't like 4.
The way I am figuring this, a liked chapter is a point, a not liked chapter is a negative point, and a neutral chapter is no point. So for me the book scores 7/25, or 28%. Adjusted to my usual 5 star rating system, that would put this at 1.4 stars, but I'll round up to 1.5 stars out of 5.
I think this new rating seems reasonable to me. Overall I would say that I didn't like the book, but this time around I didn't hate it, it just produced a kind of "meh" feeling.

(If you choose to be more generous than I am, and evaluate the book in such a way that it is not possible to go negative, where a liked chapter counts for 1 point, a neutral chapter counts for half a point, and a not liked chapter is simply 0 points, then that would result in a 16/25 score, or a 64%, or 3.2 stars out of 5. Personally I feel this is too generous and does not reflect my overall feeling towards the book.)

General Thoughts and Impressions

I really like Isaac, the support group friend with eye cancer. He was by far my favorite character. All of his dialog was really funny, and I enjoyed it whenever he was around. I realized very early that I pretty much hated it whenever Hazel and Augustus were having their own moments, but I loved it when they were each interacting with Isaac.

I also really liked both sets of parents in the book. It is a shame that they had such small roles, and weren't developed much at all, because they had some of the most genuine and moving moments in the whole story. I'm really disappointed that John Green made their parts so minimal.

The first time I read the story I didn't like Augustus. This time I liked him slightly more. Even though he has some dumb speeches, and makes a lot of obvious and pretentious observations about the world, he is still an okay guy. Yeah, I liked him this time around.

I still can't stand Hazel. She is a boring, selfish, judgmental, obnoxious teenage brat with virtually no interests or hobbies, who encourages the false expectation that girls need a boyfriend to be happy.  I wondered if she was only timid and reclusive because of her cancer, and questioned if cancer changes people. The book sort of answers this question when it talks about how grief doesn't change you, it just reveals character.  If you believe that this statement is true, then Hazel is just a terrible boring character, with or without the cancer.I don't like her one bit.

One of the best, and most genuine parts in the book, is where Augustus explains his relationship with Caroline, his previous girlfriend who died. This is one of the few times when the book actually feels honest. I really liked this part, but I couldn't help thinking that the story of Gus and Caroline is far more interesting (and far more realistic) than the story of Gus and Hazel.

I feel like the whole cigarette metaphor is really lame, and way too prevalent throughout the story. I understand that teenagers do dumb things that they think makes them deeply intellectual and philosophical, but this was too much. They kept explaining the metaphor over and over again, because nobody in the story gets it! Frankly, nobody gets it because it is a stupid metaphor that is ultimately meaningless.  Had John Green mentioned it one time, and then only had Gus put a cigarette in his mouth whenever Hazel was around, that would have been better.  That way, they wouldn't have to keep explaining it to everyone, and the idea would have been much better; almost like a private understanding between the two of them.  Or he could have just left it out entirely, that would have been fine too.

Unfortunately I really don't like the ending of the book. It feels too abrupt and cheesy to be satisfying.

Specific Things I Liked

I like the way John Green involves his fans through his YouTube channel. It really does feel like a unique community, and I can see why people would want to be a part of it.

I like how he jokes about his own books being pretentious. I'm not sure if him admitting that his books are pretentious makes me like TFIOS more, or less, but it does make me like John Green more.

I like a lot of the generally witty dialog throughout the book. Some of the life observations are clever too.

I like the line about depression being a side effect of dying. This rang true to me for some reason.

I like when it talks about questions they ask each other to covertly find out how sick they are, like if they are in school or not.

I like that Gus asks Hazel about HER story, not her cancer story.

Page 33 has a great description of the love of books.

I thought the exchange about Disney World on page 80 was quite funny.

In chapter 6 when she wakes up in pain, I felt genuine alarm. I suppose this means that this part of the story was effective.

When they talk about her not being a strong lung transplant candidate, I thought it was just the slightest, teeniest bit moving. I'm not talking tears here, I'm talking a slight fall in the countenance.

Even though much of the writing is awkward and amateurish, every once in a while he does come up with a pretty good line. The line about falling in love like you fall asleep, slowly, and then all at once, is quite lovely.

I laughed when Hazel called someone the world's douchiest douche. I might use that line someday.

I liked the line on pg 187, "If only my memory would compromise". This line felt full of deeper meaning.

I think my favorite chapter in the book is chapter 18, where Gus is sick in his car and calls Hazel for help. This was the first chapter that felt genuinely sad, and was actually somewhat moving. It's unfortunate though because it seems like this gem of a chapter was wasted. Had the rest of the book felt more genuine, and had the characters been developed better, and more likable, this could have been a truly heart-breaking chapter. Still good though. It really shows John Green's future potential.

I really like the moment between Hazel and Gus's dad at the end of chapter 19.

At the beginning of chapter 21, I'll admit that I felt the briefest wave of emotion. Not because of Hazel and Gus, but because of Hazel's parents. That is some powerful imagery, even though the moment is very brief. I also liked the moment between Hazel and her mom at the end of this chapter.

I also liked Hazel's dad at the end of chapter 22.

I like the realization about Peter VanHouton's background in chapter 23.

Hazel's parent's really shine in chapter 24.

There, I've been honest about what I liked, and what I found moving about the book. It was minimal, but there were some good things in the story.

In case you think I am a heartless person who is incapable of getting emotional while reading, here is a list of books that have made me cry actual tears, either out of joy, or sorrow:
-Marley and Me
-The Hiding Place
-A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
-To Kill a Mockingbird

Not a long list, I admit, but it is a list nonetheless.

Remaining Concerns

Much of the writing is quite poor. For example, there were quite a lot of sentences and paragraphs that just didn't make any sense to me. I would read them over and over again trying to make sense of what was being said, but they just seemed incoherent.  Maybe the editor is to blame, I don't know, but it happened frequently enough that it was bothersome. It also seemed to increase in frequency towards the end of the book. Also, during much of the dialog it was difficult to identify who was speaking. Sometimes large portions of text would not be in quotations, but then a character would respond as if it was spoken dialog. I'm not sure what was going on here, but it caught me off-guard several times.

I'm legitimately surprised at how popular this book is among teens and adults with strong religious beliefs. Personally, I would never recommend this book to ANYONE purely because of the amount of profanity, and the glamorization of underage drinking, and teenage sexuality. If I were a parent, I know I wouldn't want my teens reading books like this. I actually think that its questionable content partially negates any positive impact the story might have. I'm not familiar enough with YA Lit to know if this kind of content is common, but it sure wasn't in the kinds of books I was reading as a teenager.

Here is my big hang-up with this whole John Green/TFIOS phenomenon. It feels manufactured.
The first few pages of chapter four consist entirely of Hazel (who has cancer) expressing her feelings about An Imperial Affliction, a fictitious book about a girl with cancer. She talks about her evangelical zeal for the book, and how it isn't a "cancer book" because cancer books suck, and then gives several reasons why it shouldn't be considered a "cancer book". She talks about how she worries that Gus will dismiss it for being too pretentious. She even abbreviates the title AIA in the same way that John Green's fans abbreviate his book titles. She is basically a fan girl gushing over her obsession.
If you read chapter four and are aware of the "Nerdfighter" fanclub John Green created for himself, you see many parallels between what Hazel says about AIA, and what real people are saying about TFIOS.  This gives me the distinct feeling that John Green is reinforcing his own fan culture though his book, and that he is instructing his readers on how they are supposed to respond to the story in TFIOS.
Basically he writes a book about a girl with cancer, who is obsessed with a book about a girl with cancer, in the same way that his readers are obsessed with his book about a girl with cancer.  Unsurprisingly, his readers are reacting to his book about a girl with cancer in the same way that his fictitious character reacts to her fictitious book about a girl with cancer. Confused? Is this coincidence...or manipulation?
What makes the most sense to me is that TFIOS was specifically manufactured with his Nerdfighter fan club demographic in mind. Hazel and Gus are Nerdfighters personified, AIA deliberately parallels TFIOS, and John Green is telling his readers exactly what they are supposed to think and feel about his book by having Hazel tell you what she thinks and feels about AIA. Very clever.
John Green is a smart and likable guy, and is obviously aware of his reader demographic.  He established his own online fanclub community targeted specifically to this demographic, and uses his fanclub to promote his own work. While writing his new book he constantly teased his followers with little bits of information, and invited their involvement and feedback.  By specifically marketing his new book to his fanclub, once it went on sale, he just had to sit back and watch as it instantly became a bestseller. It's either genius marketing, or scary manipulative cult tactics. Either way, it makes me wary.
By the way, I'm not the first to realize this. There are numerous articles written about this phenomena.

In Closing
Even though I liked the book better this second time around, I didn't like it enough to validate everyone's obsession with it. I feel like the story had real potential, but fell flat due to generally poor writing, and inadequately developed characters.
I still seriously question the taste, and intelligence, of anyone who is calling this one of the best books they have ever read, or giving it in excess of three stars. These people really need to get out more, and spend some time reading better books.

My last task in this exercise is to see the film, and see if it changes my mind at all.
Honestly, I'm fully expecting to like the movie better than the book, because I've heard that the characters are more likable, and that the parents are better developed. By fixing two of my biggest complaints about the book, the movie might actually succeed.

*Note: I abbreviate The Fault in Our Stars as TFIOS not because I am a fan, but simply because I am too lazy to write out the full title every other sentence.

1 comment:

Emmy said...

This was a wonderful review, Robby! I was curious to see what you thought of The Fault in Our Stars the second time around, and honestly, I'm relieved that you didn't have a drastic change of heart.

I like that you don't just say "Bleah! This book sucks," but you actually gave reasons why it was bad AND acknowledged it when it was good. It feels like you really thought things through.

When I read the book, I only got through a couple of chapters before I gave up. I love John Green as a person (I watch all his videos for Mental_Floss), but I just can't get into his books. Oh well...You can't win 'em all.