Although I do have a considerable interest in books for young people, I didn't become aware of it until a friend lent it to me - I have to confess, this was about a year ago, but I've only just read it. Why the delay?
Well, firstly, I'm not sure what I feel about books written about, or purportedly by, dying teenagers - or even in some cases by teenagers writing from beyond the grave (eg The Lovely Bones).It's not that the books aren't well-written or anything like that; it's just that I feel slightly uncomfortable about the notion that both the author and the readers are making use of an inherently dramatic, but very sad and private situation.
I realise that this isn't entirely logical. For a start, it's what writers do all the time. I did it in my own book, The Willow Man, when I wrote about a child with a serious illness. I had my reasons - one of my own children had been through something similar, and I was sort of writing about it in an attempt to come to terms with that - but all the same, having written it, I didn't just put it in a drawer - I got it published. But terminal illness - that feels like a step further. But perhaps it's not; really not sure about that one.
The main reason though - and this is an odd one - is that this book has clearly been extremely successful. It didn't need me. Now, clearly this is ridiculous - but nevertheless, if I hear masses about a book and I know it's doing really well, my gaze tends to slide over it in bookshops. Maybe it's because I've heard so much about it, it's almost as if I've already read it. Maybe - perfectly possible - I'm just jealous. Maybe when something is very highly praised, the reality can never quite match up to the expectation.
Anyway - the reason I finally settled down to reading The Fault In Our Stars is that I recently went to Amsterdam, and while there, I visited the Anne Frank House. When you have been round the house, seen the Secret Annexe and read and heard all the heart-breaking testimony, there is an area where quotes from people who have visited the house are projected onto a screen. Some are from famous people, some aren't. Well, John Green, the author of TFIOS popped up. One of the exhibits in the house is a list of all the Jews who were deported from Amsterdam and murdered in the extermination camps; Anne's name is highlighted. Green makes the point that underneath her name, two boys are listed, both called, I think, Arno Frank. What about these two, he asks? Why shouldn't they be remembered too? And I think he made an undertaking that he would remember them. It was an interesting point and it struck me. And then I remembered that the book had some connection with Amsterdam, and so when I came home I read it - and found that a significant and rather lovely section takes place beside the very same canal near which I had been staying.
|Lovely Amsterdam - the setting for part of the book.|
Well, this is a ridiculously long introduction to writing about the book, but finally I'm there. It's clever, it's sad, it doesn't sentimentalise or pull any punches; it's funny and witty and of course, it makes you cry. Are teenagers really that clever and articulate? Is anybody really that clever and articulate? Well, clearly John Green is. And he makes the point in an interview that teenagers are the ones who are reading the difficult classics, not adults. But, although I enjoyed their cleverness, Gus and Hazel did strike me as being super-exceptionally bright.
That said, it's a riveting story. You know it's not going to end happily - how could it, when you're told at the outset that the main character has terminal cancer? - but the twist that comes near the end is just guttingly unfair. A very, very clever book: deeply moving, often funny, and not remotely sentimental. I would certainly recommend it - but then, you've probably got more sense than me and have already read it.