I was delighted to get the assignment. Writing a book review for a magazine is quite an honor when you are a newly graduated writer looking to kick off a career. All I had to do was read John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars.
At first I did not recognize the title of the book, but when I went to Amazon to order it, I had a vague recollection of seeing the movie poster picture on iTunes. Call me a pop culture recluse, but I do not tend to keep up with trending books, especially young adult romances.
I did a small amount of background checking on the book before it arrived so that I would know what I was getting myself into. This is the conclusion I had reached: The Fault in Our Stars was a teen romance between two cancer patients, and it was a tragedy. That is precisely the kind of book I stay away from, but this was professional business — I was not looking for an emotional thrill; all I wanted to do was get through it and write up a review.
The postman delivered the manila bubble envelope a day before the estimated arrival date. I ripped it open and commenced reading. Now, I was not a John Green fan before I started The Fault in Our Stars (I had never heard of him prior to this assignment), and let me say that the first six chapters of the book did not change that.
Yes, the first six chapters. I stopped reading partway into the seventh.
Hazel Lancaster is a sixteen-year-old cancer patient who could care less about attending her local Support Group for cancer victims and survivors. In fact, she does not seem to care much about anything, except her parents and her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. Until she meets Augustus Waters.
So sets the stage for an all-too-familiar romantic saga, the kind that young girls devour in an afternoon; the kind that sends their thoughts flying to that good-looking boy at school; the kind that fills their dreams with kisses, warm embraces, and flattering whispers.
I will say something for Green’s writing style: It was easy to read, and it kept me turning pages (for a while). It was also sticky. The scenes, ideas, and feelings conjured up by the words on the page implanted themselves in my mind — I could not forget them. I imagine the junior highers who have giggled and blushed over Hazel and Gus have not forgotten either. It is for that exact reason I would like to slap a label on the front of The Fault in Our Stars: WARNING — contains insidious material.
I would contend that The Fault in Our Stars is deceptive because it strips love down to a mutual attraction that leads to emotional and physical intimacy. TIME Magazine touted the book as a “love story, one of the most genuine and moving ones in recent American fiction.” If we let this novel define genuine love, then our dictionaries would read: Love is the emotional/hormonal reaction a person experiences when he or she sees an attractive human of the opposite gender; it results in flirting, intimate physical contact, and possibly premarital sex.
Except for an arguably explicit scene in the first chapter, the next five chapters of The Fault in Our Stars were not very different from dozens of other alleged love stories I have seen in movies (not so much books, because I read little, if any, romantic fiction). Consequently, I have been trying to understand why this book felt especially corrupting, and why I felt like I needed to guard my heart from destruction while reading it.
I think the medium had something to do with it. Books have a way of ingraining themselves in our minds (even more than movies sometimes), because we hear the dialogue, see the action, and feel the emotions all in the private arena of thought. For this reason, we connect with books in the deepest places of our being: our thought world, our heart of hearts. As a result, the ideas we read about possess the power to influence us in ways other media cannot.
In The Fault in Our Stars, Green manipulates emotion skillfully. By writing the story from Hazel’s perspective in first person, he immerses us in her thought life and knits our feelings to her feelings. That is not necessarily a bad thing, unless Hazel feels something that we readers should not feel — and she does.
During the early stages of her friendship with Gus, Hazel describes him as hot, sexy, gorgeous, and having amazing hands. Eventually, the two teens progress to kissing and very likely having sex. (Based on what I have read about the recent film adaptation of the book, Hazel and Gus do indeed consummate their romance.) Because Hazel and Gus are the empathetic characters in the novel, Green encourages his readers to dwell on these same thoughts, desire these same gratifications. He tells us that it is OK for men and women to enjoy the thrills of romance outside of marriage.
In America today sexual purity is viewed as a relic of the past, and unrestrained sexuality is certainly not considered wrong, let alone a sin. So why would anyone say that sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful? (For my purposes, I am broadening my definition of “sexual activity” to include sexually stimulating physical/emotional connections as well as the act of having sex.)
“‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31, 32, ESV).
Marriage is not just a romantic alliance gone legal. It is a symbol, a metaphor, a word picture of the relationship that Jesus Christ has with the people He has saved (aka the church). Since the very first couple — Adam and Eve — marriage and romance were meant to represent that relationship — and they were meant to do so together.
Most people would agree that having sex is the pinnacle of romance, and I do not disagree with them. However, other forms of sexual activity are part of romance, too. The God who created the heavens and the earth also created emotions (more to the point romantic feelings), and He ordained that the appropriate context for romance (and therefore all sexual activity) is the marriage relationship. Not a dating relationship or cohabitation — marriage.
That is why sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful — because it transgresses the very reason sex and romance exist in the first place.
And that is the fault in The Fault in Our Stars. The story tells readers that romance or sensuality apart from marriage is fine, and unfortunately, many young women (and men) have taken the bait.
P.S. Needless to say, I resigned from the writing assignment.