The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green
I tend to be somewhat late to reading books that are massive pop culture phenomena because of the large backlog of works I read on a regular basis, and admittedly reading this sort of romance is not something I do often, and for good reason. I really hate reading books like this, not because the books are bad (because this book is actually very good) but I hate what books like this say about me. The characters in this novel are witty, cynical, romantic, clever, and are precisely the sort of people that I would be friends with. The fact that they are [spoiler alert] dying of cancer only makes their romance more poignant, their love more futile than the sort of futile romantic longings that most of us (myself definitely included) have to wrestle with over the course of our lives.
This book is difficult to review because there are large parts of it that remind me all too much of my own past and present. One of the chief difficulties, for me, of reading a book like this is it reminds me that for all of my cynicism, I am a romantic at heart, something that causes no end of trouble in my life and in my interactions with others. Over and over again, the book reminds us that the two protagonists are in love, in a real love, with people who are awkward, who like serious books and think deeply about mortality and the meaning of life even as they face their own inexorable demise, and yet despite the fact that they know they are doomed, they still fall in love anyway, still open their hearts to someone else, still long for intimacy and connection in a world where those are immensely hazardous and very ill-rewarded for most of us. Most of the people who read this book will not have cancer, but most know what it is like to be gripped between fear and longing, and to choose to love even when it is inconvenient, even when it is doomed to produce immense stress and difficulty in our lives and the lives of others, because, as the author says towards the end, we do not have a choice to be hurt or not in this life, but rather we chose who we let hurt us.
As is often the case with novels that strike a chord, this novel has achieved a great deal of success as a book and as a film (I have not yet seen the movie), and this success is well-earned. Not only has the author constructed two memorable and sympathetic romantic leads, but each of the secondary characters adds something to the plot as well, as well as to the struggle over fulfilling our longings for love and intimacy even if we know our lives on this earth are but a brief vapor leaving us to be forgotten and consigned to oblivion. Despite the fact that we are beings doomed to death and suffering and sorrow, heartbreak and pain and agony, we are driven by our longings to seek friendship and romantic love, to stare into the heavens to curse them or reflect on them, and to hope against hope that we have lived a life worth remembering by someone, if only for a little while. Clearly that longing for love, for meaning, for significance, is a longing that drives many of us in our lives, and books like this serve to remind us of the intensity and universality of those longings, providing comfort only in the fact that we are all struggling against the same fate, and that we are all at least potential friends and allies in the struggle against despair. As a book that combines humane storytelling with witty references to literature and pop culture, this is a book that is a treat for both the head and the heart, a book that traffics in heartbreak even as it provokes the longings it deals with so grimly and so realistically.