I liked it.
But probably not as much as I wanted to.
Disclaimer: I am not a John Green expert. I loved Brotherhood 2.0 when they were doing that vlog-only-communication experiment, enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines a great deal–probably because of the nerdiness of it–but I am afraid to read his Printz-Award-winning Looking for Alaska maybe for the same reasons that got in the way of my really falling for Augustus and Hazel.
Sure, when things started getting tragic halfway through Amsterdam my heart started palpitating for them. (Anne Frank references kinda do that to me–she was my first tragic love. See Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, inspired by her and utterly heart-cracking.) And I was clinging to the bitter end, my fingernails ragged, very much feeling the hopelessness of it all. It is a very emotional book. And that’s probably why I liked it as much as I did; if I don’t feel a book, I have no reason to care what the heck happens in it.
But ultimately, it was a sugar rush. Once it metabolized, I felt kinda empty.
The metaphors were great. (I think I started to like Augustus when he revealed his belief in metaphor.) The Fault in Our Stars, titled after a correction of a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, has great ideas. Really great ideas, ones I’ve been exploring in my own writing: struggling with the inevitability of death, whether it’s worth it to love in the face of such death, not wanting to be “a grenade,” a Green so wonderfully puts it. The idea of a hamartia, a tragic flaw, and just where that comes from.
But, as Ray Ferrer, my new favorite stencil artist, says in his artistic statement:
I am vehemently opposed to using art as a means to rely on overly-complex theories or ideas to prop up mediocre images. I believe that the quality of the actual work is what is paramount.
I felt it just wasn’t enough. The ideas were great, there were some fantastic lines, Augustus and Hazel were hilarious, observant, and intelligent, but the entire package just didn’t support those ideas. As much as their words tickled me, the characters didn’t feel real. (They felt like Mary and Harry Sues. There. I said it.) It was too pat. It didn’t make me think. It made me nod my head and agree, but that was the depth of my thoughts: “Yes, yes, I totally hear you. That is exactly how it is. You said it, brother.” I had nothing to chew on.
Maybe the pace was too fast. YA, outside of an age bracket, is often dictated by pacing, which makes for quick reads. (And I read this in like a week? Super quick for me.) But I felt like Green was breezing past so many things I wanted to linger on, wallow in, reflect on. (Is it because he wouldn’t have anything to say in these reflections??) Maybe the problem was not enough character introspection. Hazel experienced lots of things and colored the prose with her judgments, but there weren’t a whole lot of reactions from her.
Writing instructors say “Show not tell” like a mantra, but they leave out the part about telling, when done right, being able to synthesize pages and pages of showing, like an attorney’s closing argument. You already saw all the evidence. Now here is what that evidence means, through the eyes of the character. It’s absolutely essential for connecting with a character, in my opinion. It wasn’t until I got over my fear of telling that my own characters stopped being transparent papery creations driven hither and thither by my authorial ideas. (This isn’t a movie, for goodness sake, it’s a book, so get inside your character’s head and analyze crap.)
The writing didn’t sing. It wasn’t art.
Maybe I’m being too picky. Passages in Amsterdam were gorgeous (maybe because he actually went to Amsterdam to write), and so were certain philosophical reflections. But I didn’t see the world, feel it, hear it, taste or smell it. True, description drags, and can be a pace-killer. (And some of my favorite YA/MG authors are probably considered painfully slow: Donna Jo Napoli, Rosemary Sutcliff, for goodness sake, Jean Craighead George!) I gotta have poetry. I gotta have figurative language. I gotta have little metaphors–the kind like make you see things, not just that link ideas within a narrative. And similes. Things are like things. All the stinking time. (Also, the dialogue sucked. Everyone was too smart, too clever, too quick with comebacks. Even parents. Fine in a stylistic book or, like, a cartoon, but this was supposed to be gritty and real.)
To sum up, let me just say I have to agree with my brother’s girlfriend, who loves books and has intelligent discussions about them. When she told me her 13-year-old brother read The Fault in Our Stars, I felt the sudden urge to defend myself. Of course he read it, he’s 13 and it’s YA, but you know, YA can have some big ideas. I explained what it was about.
And you know what she said?
Oh, so kinda like A Walk to Remember.
“No, no,” I said. “This is way cooler than Nicholas Sparks.”
Except, it kinda isn’t.
(Hey, I liked A Walk to Remember when I was like, 13.)