Friday, February 24, 2012
YA Book Club: The Fault in Our Stars
Last fall Tracey Neithercott created the super-fun Fall Book Club. We read a trio of great YA books and discussed them in blog posts. Go here for my post on our first read, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, or here for the second pick, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and here for the third, The Scorpio Races. It's no longer fall but happily the book club is back in slightly new form: the YA Book Club. In February we read the club's first contemporary YA selection, The Fault in Our Stars. (Actually, I read it in January and posted here, but of course I have more to say.)
I'd describe the books by John Green (that I've read: Looking for Alaska; Will Grayson, Will Grayson; and now The Fault in Our Stars) as contemporary YA, but at the same time I don't know if I'd describe them as completely realistic contemporary YA. This is not a criticism--it's actually a distinction I consider a huge compliment. I'm envious of Green's writing (aren't we all, really) and particularly the way he writes characters/situations/settings/dialogue/etc. that are both authentic and elevated. They are verisimilar: true without being realistic to a fault.
Let's step back with a concrete example. Dialogue is one of the best parts of a John Green book. Example from p.87 (Augustus describing what he likes about a sculpture):
"Two things I love about this sculpture," Augustus said. He was holding the unlit cigarette between his fingers, flicking it as if to get rid of the ash. He placed it back in his mouth. "First, the bones are just far enough apart that if you're a kid, you cannot resist the urge to jump between them. Like, you just have to jump from rib cage to skull. Which means that, second, the sculpture essentially forces children to play on bones.The symbolic resonances are endless, Hazel Grace."
His characters tend to be whipsmart, hyper-eloquent, effusive, expressive, and really funny. They work in references to Schrodinger's cats and obscure writers and philosophers and really deep intellectual and spiritual theories at the same as dropping likes and awesomes. Do real teens speak that way? Yes, and no. I definitely talked about Big Ideas with my friends as a teen--ruminating on infinity and Marx and existentialism and religion in the way that certain nerdy kids do. Were our thoughts as well-expressed as those of John Green's characters? No. Did we stumble over our words and ideas more? Yes. Would recreating those sorts of authentic conversations make for good fiction? No, probably not. John Green, like the superstar he is, takes the essence of young people's conversations and elevates them to beautifully crafted writing. His dialogue sparkles in a way that might not be entirely realistic, but the heart of the content is. It's not realistic; it's hyper-real (and thrilling to read for that).
Nowhere was this elevation of reality more clear than in The Fault In Our Stars, and not just in dialogue. This is a book about something very real and very sad: cancer and mortality. Yet the world Green has built in TFIOS feels almost like a magical place (if not an always-joyful one), particularly when Hazel and Augustus get to travel to Amsterdam, oxygen nubbins and prosthetics all. We are both shown the gritty truth of being sick--the physical limitations, the sadness, the pain and guilt and fear--but despite that a sense of wonder and expansion runs through the story. It's a contemporary fantasyland, but it's a verisimilar one in which real life happens, the good and the bad. Amazingly, love supersedes the bad stuff, in terms of both the theme and storytelling. Many books are either/or: gritty and true, or ideal and shiny. This one is remarkably both.
What did you think about TFIOS?