The tempest may have passed now, but a few months ago you couldn’t move very far on the intertubes without catching some whiff of John Green. Aside from the YouTube show he shares with his brother, his name was very present about the place mostly due to the fact that he’d recently torn the hearts out of over 150 000 young people.
His most recent, most ambitious and in my opinion best novel is The Fault in Our Stars, and it’s responsible for the aforementioned 150 000 tear-stained faces. Now that may be enough to put you off — generally speaking, people don’t like to be sad. I was reluctant to open the book for this reason but I’m glad I did, and that’s lucky, because from the first page I was whisked into the little world he’s created with no escape in sight.
The Fault in Our Stars is about cancer. That’s the first thing that springs to mind when you hear about it. However, as you read along you feel a shift and you realise that it is not in fact a book about cancer but a book about people, who just so happen to have cancer. Cancer is not a character or even an antagonist, it’s just sort of there.
Is it a love story? Well, it certainly has that element, but again, it’s mostly just a story about people who happen to fall in love, and who happen to have cancer, and that happens to not be a very poetic combination.
But that’s the core of all John Green’s works: people. His plots are difficult to describe because they are all people-based, coming of age, learning about the world, looking introspectively into the human soul. They aren’t books about cancer, or road trips, or classmates dying, or searching for runaways; they are about people.
His first book, Looking for Alaska, was the one that won him the award and shot him to fame, and ironically my least favourite of all his works. I don’t quite know what it was about it that irritated me: possibly the character of Alaska herself, as a person and a muddle of confusing characterisation, and the fact that I picked what was going to happen to her. I was extremely irked by this development, because otherwise it was a hugely poignant and thoughtful book full of big issues handled with grace and realism, and the deconstruction of the crazy dream girl idea… all ruined for me by my compulsion to grate my teeth every time the main characters moved.
On the flipside, his joint project with David Levithan shot up to my favourite books list before I was halfway through it because it made me laugh my head off. Yep, my head just bobbled off my neck and floated around the room as I enjoyed the spectacle that is Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I definitely recommend to anyone who wants to not only get a taste of both writers’ flair and ability to get inside the human head and come out the other side with fantastic prose and meaningful insights, but also cackle and possibly snort in a most unladylike manner.
His fluffiest so far is An Abundance of Katherines, which is so enormously different to some of his other stories that I think it was the result of some sort of creative continental drift. Paper Towns strikes a balance between the two, but still hanging more on the melancholy and introspective side, and the scales are evened with The Fault in Our Stars, which will make you smile and make you sob in equal amounts, and sometimes both at once.
The thing I think I like best about John Green as a person and a storyteller is that he treats teenagers like human beings. Why do you think he has such an enormous fanbase? Because he speaks to young adults as his equals, both physically and through his novels, and acknowledges that the things that happen to them and go through their heads are worth absolutely no less than anything that occurs to the adult brain or the adult soul. They are not kids, they are people, and like I said he captures people in a brilliant and resonating way that I strive to get my head around for my own writing, and understanding of life and the world.
Much like Jacqueline Wilson, it’s impossible not to admire his ability to capture a sense of reality. The characters feel real, like they could be you or anyone you know. The things that are happening to them feel real. And the wrenching feeling in your chest is real.
Reading The Fault in Our Stars is like watching a firework fly towards you. You know from the nature of the thing that at some point something terrible is going to happen. But you’re so caught up in watching the beauty unfold that you realise you will never be prepared for it, and when it’s too late you’re hit and it still hurts. It’s a book featuring cancer patients, in love, written by John Green, who has a frankly nasty habit of not making his heroes end up with the people they pine for and capturing heartache in a way that’s startlingly tangible. I knew there would be pain and loss at some point but I was still shocked and upset when it happened. That is the mark of a skilful writer.
And for me, at least, it worked much more effectively here than in Looking for Alaska. You know what that means? He’s getting better. Each new novel is better and richer than the last. We’d all better hang on to our bodies when he announces his next project.