Why do I consistently rate John Green books at three stars? I love John Green. Really, I do. I am unconditionally and irrevocably in love with John Green novels. That might not look apparent when you see the ratings I give his books, though. He instills humor, heartbreak, and wit into his characters—a breath of freshness into the YA genre, so I feel excited and happy when I get to read his writing. So why is TFiOS three stars? Because I’m fussy. I’m this picky, emotional ice queen, so if a book clicks with me—and I mean connects on this almost unreachable level where my feelings exist—I will love that book for all of my life.
When I read, I read critically. I’m one of those people who have difficulty enjoying books without poking and prodding at things, like writing style, word choice, plot, character depth, and so on. But I like John Green’s style, word choice, plot, character depth, and so on’s. And yet…
I really, truly, wanted to adore this book. I had an irresistible urge to read it but not an irresistible urge to buy it, so I waited and waited to fall into the #1 slot of TFiOS library requests. Requested way back in November when Green’s new novel was on pre-order, I finally took claim of #1 out of 40+ other readers in mid-January. But then… the library turned on me, shoving me back into the #5 position, and I wrongly waited an even longer amount of time. All the while this great eagerness to read The Amazing & Widely-Loved John Green grew exponentially; hence, I pinned Green and his novel to a high expectation that was not met.
While I’ve yet to acquaint An Abundance of Katherines, I remember how Paper Towns was enjoyable but I felt that it was okay. Just okay. Then I read Looking for Alaska and why, oh, why, I’m now thinking, did I give LFA three stars? LFA made my eyes mist. This is important: books do not make my eyes mist. Not usually, anyway, unless I haven’t slept and it is four in the morning, in which case: anything makes me almost-cry when I’m sleep-deprived at four in the morning.
I expected TFiOS to be like LFA and entangle itself into my emotional web, wrecking blurry-vision havoc. With all this surrounding hype and the knowledge that the main character has cancer, I thought TFiOS would be more emotionally engaging. Instead, Green pulls off amusing humorous wit, but it’s not balanced by a felt sense of grief—for me, at least. But don’t listen to me. I don’t even have real complaints. Well, okay—maybe a few.
For one, Peter Van Houten feels distant and unreal. Not that he isn’t believable, but he doesn’t feel as embedded into the story as other characters. Instead, Houten is something loose that surfaces a few times before he is completely brushed off. The idea of Houten is very present—his book is very present—but Houten as a character is not. This strikes me as odd since Hazel feels connected to Houten’s words.
I am also quite used to Green leading me somewhere, such as in Paper Towns (road trip!) and LFA (friendship! death! more friendship!). TFiOS, however, does not take me anywhere special. “Cancer is a side effect of dying,” says Hazel, but in respect to literature: tragedy needs an additional ingredient that is not tragedy frosted in witticisms. I appreciate the sentiment and perspectives about life, death, and dying young—Hazel’s and Augustus’s battles against cancer. Ultimately, I didn’t pick up any (poignant) emotional subtlety beneath the humor. I suppose it’s fair to say that compared to his other books, I felt a lack of adventure and discovery.
But! Because Hazel has cancer and a future severely lacking in hopes of recovery, I didn’t fully expect the twist that was twisted. (Oh, see, and don’t want to ruin anything, so I’m wording this cautiously.) And it’s a nice twist—only I shouldn’t say “nice,” because it’s not really nice; it’s sad.
I like that the book didn’t allow my initial assumptions about each character’s fate to come true (and Green’s writing is always a pleasure), but I didn’t feel emotionally invested enough to be struck by the turn of events.