THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, REVISITED
The following was originally published on GeekyNews in 2014, ahead of the film adaptation's release. It was spread across multiple posts, a few chapters at a time, in conjunction with accompanying commentary from Olivia Dolphin and Jennifer Dorsey (not included here).
Here’s what I’m thinking the entire time I read the first chapter: what would Hazel and Augustus be like on social media?
I’ve got a few ideas going.
Hazel writes understated text posts in between reblogs of America’s Next Top Model gifs and excerpts from feminist essays. She livetweets episodes of her favorite shows and support group meetings – “i think patrick just quoted barney the dinosaur???” or “one of the kids definitely fell asleep for a minute. same.” – and the more ridiculous things her parents say. She doesn’t have an Instagram and hasn’t posted on Facebook for a while, using it to “like” her friends’ pictures and respond to relatives’ all-caps questions with the appropriate amount of politeness.
Some days, Augustus’s blog is a series of entry-level literary quotes and pseudointellectual musings. He doesn’t quite understand the tag system. He posts as many selfies as he reblogs Morrisey lyrics. He Instagrams everything. He once uploaded a cover of “Wonderwall” to YouTube. And sometimes he still tweets about sports.
Because this time around, this first chapter reads like a blog post. It hits me at three a.m. as I’m reading about the Literal Heart of Jesus: it’s like Hazel is writing with an audience in mind. It’s like Augustus Waters crafts his sentences in the vague hope that they will be tweeted about later.
There’s been a lot of talk about voice in The Fault in Our Stars. The opposition is adamant in their belief that Teenagers Don’t Talk Like That and the phrasing is all wrong. These weren’t things I noticed the first time around, too caught up in the story to foresee how good a meme “it’s a metaphor, see” would make, but now they’re front and center.
I still disagree. I think teenagers do talk like this. It’s just less often that you hear it out loud. We talk like this in spaces where we are allowed to use language as an extension of our identity, where every sentence we send out into the void is also an introduction. We blog like we’re always making first impressions.
It’s not far-fetched to imagine that Hazel and Augustus grew up on the Internet and blogged-tweeted-instagrammed through their formative years. It’s far-fetched to imagine they didn’t. With that in mind, it’s easier to understand why they speak the way they do, especially when they first meet.
The chapter ends with the unlit cigarette scene. So let’s address the elephant in the room. The metaphorical elephant, if you will.
Long before Tumblr decided out-of-context lines made awesome low-effort jokes, I kind of really related to it all. Augustus says he’s a “big believer in metaphor,” and I spent my adolescence making sure I wore my heart on my sleeve. I wore things because they reminded me of lyrics I wrote, and I refused to leave the house without at least one Harry Potter reference printed on my t-shirt or written on my hand. I drew a lot of deathly hallows on my wrists during high school.
And there’s somewhat of a cringe effect to that in retrospect, but I can’t fault myself for trying to present myself in a way that was consistent with what I loved and what I believed. I can’t fault Augustus, either, for trying to communicate his stance to the world in ways he sat down and thought out. Not when I still wear infinity earrings and lightning bolt necklackes with the best of them.
It’s really hitting me that I’ve forgotten so much of The Fault in Our Stars. As time has passed, I’ve remembered it more as this unforgettably beautiful story than as this unforgettably beautiful story which is also snarky and funny and full of lines that knock the air out of you.
And maybe that’s the thing: maybe this is a book that resists both first impressions and unreliable memories.
The day it came out, I saw Jodi Picoult’s blurb before I first cracked the book open: “Electric… filled with staccato bursts of humor and tragedy.” Rereading this chapter made me consider, not for the first time, how accurate it was. How much I underestimated it.
This chapter is equal parts exposition and wit. Hazel goes from detailing her diagnosis and treatment to waxing sardonic about encouragements. Augustus banters with his parents and, pages later, recounts the day of the existentially fraught free-throw. Lines like “not breaking so much as already broken” are mixed in with phrases like “old Prosty.”
Despite this, the story is not a series of juxtapositions. It’s not humor against tragedy, or even humor as a means of coping with tragedy. It is what it is.
This is the chapter that brought us The Hectic Glow. The Fault in Our Stars has risen to unbelievably popularity, and while every fan has every right to be called a fan, there are some things that get lost in the hype, like John’s bit in a vlog about how he wanted The Hectic Glow to be a thing.
I had a thought, so I did what I always do: I consulted Google.
Interest in the term flatlined shortly after its release early in 2012, and then shot up through all of 2013. And that about sums it up.
Insert “rollercoaster that only goes up” joke here.
Hazel begins going back and forth between calling him Augustus and Gus.
Augustus called her Hazel Grace from the beginning.
Augustus says “No, not your cancer story. Your story.” and I am reminded of a Captain America fanfiction I was reading yesterday. In the fic, Bucky Barnes goes “People aren’t useful. People are people.” I think Augustus’s line says more about his outlook than his speech on basketball-related existentialism.
Then there’s the “Sometimes, you read a book” quote, and it still hits me like nothing else. If paragraphs in books could be considered anthems, this would be at the top of my list. I think it’s a tie between that quote and “I liked the way his story ended with someone else” when it comes to my favorite line out of the chapter.
When Hazel delivers the latter, I think of how hers does, too.
The first thing I do while reading this chapter is laugh, because this is where Hazel tells us that “Spoiler alert: the price of dawn is blood.” I laugh because, back when the Harry Potter Alliance was running its 2013 Equality for the Win fundraiser, John wrote an excerpt from The Price of Dawn to help get donations. I’m on the social media team for the HPA, and we were throwing around ways to promote this perk, and we came up with “Spoiler alert: the Price of Dawn is $20,” referencing the price it was going for.
I had no idea while making that graphic that it echoed Hazel’s exact phrasing:
“What do you want to do on your very special day?”
“Come home from class and set the world record for number of episodes of Top Chef watched consecutively?”
Hazel and I have very similar aspirations.
Hazel mentions she’s not lying, but rather “choosing among truths.” It hits me how much foreshadowing there is in these first chapters. Lines I didn’t think twice about when first reading the book make me go all emotional this time around.
I didn’t sign up for this.
Except I totally did.
I'd forgotten just how meta The Fault in Our Stars is and just how terrified I was that the book would end in the middle of a sentence.
I used to ruin books for myself by reading the last paragraph. I stopped when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows debuted, out of principle, and didn’t feel tempted to commit the act again until I read this chapter for the first time.
I didn’t, but I was still scared. The actual ending was any less devastating.
I keep being caught by surprise when an iconic scene or line comes up. In these first chapters, they’ve been one after the other. This chapter brings us smashed trophies and “pain demands to be felt.” Isaac says that “love is keeping the promise anyway.”
These are moments I remembered, but could not place. Reading them again is like running into old friends. These are words I wrote down in notebook paper margins and worked into the five-paragraph high school essays I resented having to write. It shouldn’t surprise me that there are so many of them.
I keep coming back to the way Augustus speaks. It’s grating sometimes, and you can almost see what people mean when they say it’s unnatural, but it’s striking more than anything. Augustus speaks deliberately, controlling his language because he can. It’s not a mark of pretentiousness – not when he’s comforting his friend and playing a war-glorifying video game at the same time; it’s just the mark of someone who makes choices in his rhetoric because he can't make them elsewhere.
There’s a line here that underscores my last thought. Augustus tells Hazel that “Caroline is no longer suffering from personhood.” He could have just said she died or passed away but, as with all Augustinian (to borrow a phrase from Hazel) sentences, he had to seek out the words. Chase them down.
It’s about avoiding passivity.
When Augustus hangs up first, I recoil. The foreshadowing cuts deep.
There’s a moment in this chapter that sends me into a completely irrational rage.
Hazel says she’s been to Disney World and Epcot Center, as though Disney World is a theme park and Epcot Center isn’t part of Disney World.
I’m a theme park geek. This mistake make reach for my stress ball.
TFiOS is a love letter to books that have changed people.
Augustus tells Hazel that her telling him about An Imperial Affliction was “like it was a gift, […] like [she’d] given [him] something important.” When Hazel writes to Peter Van Houten, she says the book “got [her] right.” These sentiments hit home.
There is a vulnerability involved in loving art, in admiring an artist. Hazel writing to Peter reminds me of when I was in fourth grade and wrote to J.K. Rowling, disappointed by the generic, photocopied response I received weeks later. In my mind, Jo would read my letter and promptly become my best friend or – as I knew she was busy writing the next book – best pen pal. It took me a few days to get over the heartbreak, but I was back to listening to wizard rock and writing about Harry Potter in my journal every day soon enough.
Hazel’s idealism and prompt disappointment, then, are by no means unfamiliar.
The response Hazel receives asks whether it is “fleeting jolts of meaning” that give art its significance. It’s a line I do not remember reading the first time, but it’s also the only line I highlighted on that page. I assume it meant to me then what it means to me now: I struggle with my emotions, constantly worrying I’m too numb, that it should be constant instead of intermittent. This line proposes, even for a second, that it comes in jolts to other people, too. It’s not something I would read or hear anywhere else.
Books are important that way – they cancel out the loneliness.
TFiOS is that it is a love letter to books that have changed people. I believe that. I'll fight you on it.
But it also is one of those books.
The line “sandwiches that were metaphorically resonant” makes me want to rearrange my life priorities to put sandwiches at the very top.
Hazel says that “Augustus Waters [is] no improviser,” and I think that does a better job of explaining and defending Augustus’s language than any of my ramblings so far.
The first time I cried while reading this book was in this chapter, during the grenade speech. I know this because the ink is smeared from a teardrop, and because that quote still cuts deep. The quote captures what it means to be ill, what it means to care for others before all else, what it means to feel accountable for what you leave behind.
It’s a quote I’ve thought of quite a bit since the book’s release, and a quote I loved and related to from the start. I don’t know what it’s like to be chronically ill, but I know what it’s like to worry about how my mental illness negatively affect the people I love most. I know what it’s like to feel that I don’t deserve those people. This quote made me feel less alone in that. It still does.
Just like the first time I read the book, there’s a line in this chapter that hits like a punch to the gut: Hazel remarks, surprised, that her mother had her “go home clothes” all along. It says a lot about hope. Mostly, it just makes me sad.
I can’t believe John Green used the words “lit up” in reference to Augustus Waters before That Scene with full knowledge people would reread it and cry.
John Green: supervillain.
The chapter opens with Hazel negotiating her survival. Rereading this book with Augustus’s death in mind almost overshadows the fact that Hazel, too, will die one day. This scene, with its sharp hopelessness, is a cruel reminder.
The lack of autonomy Hazel feels – Dr. Maria’s “It’s your life” followed by Hazel’s “except not really” – hits home. It breaks my heart, but mostly it makes me think about the decisions others make for us when we are young or ill or young and ill. I wish this weren’t such a reality.
For somebody who has spent the bulk of this reread thus far defending Augustus Waters’ language, I can’t help but think that sometimes he talks like Thor.
I’m not objecting.
This chapter explores Hazel’s relationship with passivity.
She returns to support group, where she sits back and reflects on others’ experiences until Lida brings the focus on her. After a brief and poignant moment of vocal autonomy – “I’ll give you my strength if you’ll give me your remission” – Hazel feels guilty. Despite being aware of the Heroic Cancer Patient fallacy, despite recognizing her right to define her own existence, Hazel still falls into these situations and is – at no fault of her own – almost complicit.
It’s like looking in a mirror. This book nails our inability to allow ourselves the same courtesies we extend to others.
Hazel remarks that “the world went on, as it does, without [her] full participation.” This isn’t just about the isolating nature of illness, but about the isolating nature of personhood.
This book is about personhood.
We are urged, not for the first time, to Live Our Best Life Today in a chapter that highlights how difficult that is.
I love this chapter.
I love the personification of the suitcase. I love the allusion to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I love that Hazel’s mom wakes up excited about Amsterdam the way a kid – or adult – wakes up excited about Disney. I love the tribute to breakfast foods. I love that there’s a line – “the weird thing about houses is that they almost look like nothing is happening inside of them, even though they contain most of our lives” – that reminds me of Arcade Fire’s incredible album The Suburbs.
I hate this chapter.
I hate the personification of the suitcase, how they couldn’t use it for what they hoped. I hate how Hazel’s dad has to worry about never seeing her again. I hate that Augustus and Hazel are robbed of autonomy, not just by illness but by youth. I hate how realistic the otherization of the ill is. I hate that when Hazel talks about “waking up from the pain,” about the isolating nature of emotion, it hits home. I hate the foreshadowing when Augustus falls asleep first.
I hate this book.
I love this book.
All I can think about while reading this chapter is one of John’s videos from 2010.
A lot of what I love about that video overlaps with what I love about TFiOS. I love how John turns a phrase and how seemingly commonplace observations and moments add up to a much greater whole. More than anything, I love the little boats.
John ends his video by saying he is “thankful to be a little boat, full of water, still floating.” It’s a sentiment I haven’t forgotten since, as it says so much about life and hope and strength. So when Hazel points out the same boats John filmed here, I can’t help but realize how much that quote and its meaning apply to this book.
And when Augustus responds to Hazel’s question about Caroline with “and you say there’s no afterlife,” I can’t help but consider our role in defining others’ infinities.
Reading the Peter Van Houten scene as someone well-versed in the business of Being a Fan of Things and People is so jarring. I want to hug Hazel and show her one of John’s videos or posts about books belonging to their readers. I want to show her all the An Imperial Affliction fan art on tumblr, show her that there are people out there discussing and reimagining her favorite book better than its author ever could.
I am struck by Hazel’s hope here, the recurring assumption that there must be some mistake, that Van Houten must be joking. Despite her brilliance, despite her keen observations on the world and its people, she is still just a teenager, idealistic with the best of us. I think that’s what I love most about her.
I also love her liberal use of the word douche.
It’s almost as though I had forgotten – like I was so wrapped up in Van Houten’s douchiness and Lidewij’s badassery that I forgot, foolishly, what came next. And once I realized this was That Chapter with That Moment, I forgot again, enchanted by the Anne Frank House scene.
I delighted in Hazel and Augustus choosing to remember a difficult moment in a positive light. I remembered how deeply the argument about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs affected me when I first read this book, how it changed my outlook on everything.
And then Hazel’s mom gave Hazel and Augustus time to Talk, and I realized that the plot of the book had not magically or mercifully changed since the last time I read it.
Which was, of course, unfortunate.
Look. Reading this chapter, I don’t care how important The Fault in Our Stars is. I don’t care how many compelling arguments it makes. I don’t care about John Green’s commitment to realism and metaphor.
I care about Hazel and Augustus, and how this. Should not. Be happening.
For a few chapters, I’ve been reading the book on autopilot, aware of what comes next and keeping some emotional distance as a means of self defense. And then, all at once, that illusion of safety from emotion shattered.
No matter how familiar I am with the importance of literature, with the idea that books do not serve to shelter their readers, this chapter makes me wish it were easier. Simpler. Less heartbreaking.
The shift in tone after Augustus’s “like a Christmas tree” revelation is disorienting in the worst way. This chapter, in particular, made me realize how I’d warped the order of the book in my head.
Here’s how I remembered it:
The egg scene happens a lot earlier, before Amsterdam. The “I fell in love the way you fall asleep” line was on the airplane. Augustus Waters does not die.
The first two are simple matters of misremembering. The third is probably a coping mechanism. It’s not like I actually forgot that Augustus dies. I just didn’t consider the permanence of his death, like half of me thought it was just another metaphor of his and some epilogue I’d missed the first time around would find him smiling, unlit cigarette between his teeth, alive.
After reading the book the first time around, my relationship with TFiOS quickly extended to headcanons, meta, and fanart. It was easy to suspend the story in its best moments, easy to blur out the edges of retrospect.
This chapter came as a rude awakening.
As we see Augustus’s health decline through Hazel’s eyes, I can’t help but think about the movie. It is not until this moment that I realize, in full consciousness, that we will see Augustus Waters die. There is something to be said about the permanence of particularly moving imagery; I wish that did not apply here.
I wish Augustus had said “okay” when Hazel tried to get him to.
I am not ready for the film.
There is a lot of good in this chapter, too. There is, of course, the egging scene – a part of the book I remember with the same nostalgia I apply to the prank at the beginning of Paper Towns. I love how carefree it is and is not all at once. I will probably reblog every single gif of this scene that finds its way to my dashboard once the movie comes out. Every last one.
And there’s Hazel’s dad, with his intermittent but lasting brilliance. I love Hazel’s dad as a character and a comfort. I love his silence throughout the book and how deeply each rare line resonates.
In this chapter, he says he doesn’t “think defeatism is honest,” but that the universe wants to be noticed. It’s optimistic, but not to a fault. And it’s memorable.
In the same chapter, Augustus says – not for the first time – that he is on a roller coaster that only goes up. It’s a reminder that, for all his efforts to appear aloof, Augustus is an optimist himself. I think that’s my favorite thing.
[I skipped the next two chapters. I don't remember why.]
Augustus Waters should know better. For all his intellect, for all his Deep Thinking of Important Thoughts, for all his grand metaphors, he should know this: he is special. Not for the way he turns a phrase or for his unlit cigarettes or for his Cancer Story. Just because he’s a person. He should understand that.
But he doesn’t. Not many people do.
He comments on how Hazel doesn’t call him Augustus anymore, doesn’t afford him a name as grand as he wish he were. He laments his humanity. It’s heartbreaking.
I wish Augustus Waters had the luxury of a mid-adolescence crisis with less finality. Here, the stakes are high. For a moment I fear that he did not have enough time to realize just how much he mattered.
I forgot all about this chapter until I read the first line.
I love Augustus and his devotion to – his reliance on – metaphor.
I love Hazel and her poetry.
I hate their circumstances.
This chapter hurts too close to home, so I listen to Death Cab for Cutie’s What Sarah Said instead of talking about it because I am a cliche.
I am happy that their gratuitously sarcastic conversations were not among the things lost in the journey downhill.
[I didn't finish the reread project. I don't remember why.]
THOUGHTS ON THE MOVIE
Published the week of its release.
There were, of course, tears.
They started when, during The Night Before Our Stars, John Green introduced the movie – all pride and excitement – and left us with a “and as they say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.” It’s not a phrase we haven’t heard before, but this was unprecedented context.
This weekend, after all, was the product of over two years of millions of people loving the book present-tense. It was the product of the years of anticipation before that. It was the culmination of so much emotion, so much community – a unique magic only some books bring about.
When I told my friends afterwards, they joked I started crying before the movie even started. I don’t think that’s the case, not even technically.
As the opening sequence rolled, it occurred to me I wasn’t crying because of the TFiOS sadness – not yet, anyway. I was crying because this was actually happening, because John Green – who has given me more friends and memories and well-loved words than I can say – wrote a book and it was a movie now.
By the credits, that movie felt like home.
I can’t bring myself to resent the omissions. I’ll always wish the cameo had been left in and I’ll always wish Caroline had been included, but I can’t resent anybody involved when the movie was so faithful. I finally understand what John has been talking about all this time: everybody involved cared so much, so sincerely that it shined through in every second.
Shailene, Ansel, and Nat portrayed their characters so well that they’ll forever be My Hazel, My Augustus, My Isaac respectively. When I reread TFiOS, I’ll have no qualms about the movie popping into my head; I won’t have to edit my imagining.
I watched the movie a second time on Friday night, and I was, for a moment, scared I might notice flaws I hadn’t seen through the emotion of the night before. This fear was, of course, misguided, and I only fell deeper in love.
When the book first came out, I wrote a review for my high school paper thanking John for “a forever within the numbered pages.” I hadn’t thought about that article again in years, not until I watched the movie and felt that sense of forever once more. The packed theater saw a reverent but unabashed audience, with deep belly laughs in all the right places, clapping and cheering during kisses and triumphs, unstifled sobs amidst painful silences. The first night, a stranger I hadn’t spoken to all night offered me a tissue. The second, people I’d just met helped me save seats for my friends who were stuck in traffic and, when the movie was over, told me “it was great crying next to you.”
I haven’t felt so safe in a theater since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, and while nothing will ever be Harry Potter for me, this was a magic of its own.
A few nights before we all saw the movie, John posted a menu from his celebratory dinner that read “Celebrating The Fault In Our Stars – the book, the movie, the unstoppable force.” And what an unstoppable force it is. The story – in print and film alike – is moving, transformative. The community around it is inimitable. And no matter how you define the word, it is altogether infinite.