A couple of weeks ago I looked over Aidan's shoulder while he was reading The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. He read it in about three days, I think. Not long after that his sister Maddy was reading it, and Aidan had moved on to another book by the same author. And then a third. Always curious, I leafed through one of them, looking as I always do for some indication about whether the book was worth my time. I admit, I am hard to impress (others might say, a snob), and often when I do this with books, a tell-tale cliché will send me away shaking my head. But this time -- I kept reading, until Aidan noticed me looking in the middle of the book and said something like, Careful, if you read too far you'll spoil the plot. About a week later I asked them both, So which book by this John Green guy should I read first? The Fault In Our Stars, they said together. The next Monday, Aidan put it into my hand.
I'm not going to ruin the plot, but it's fair to tell you that this is a book about sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds living (or not) with cancer. When a book starts out with a teenage cancer support group, you know it's going to be a hard slog. By the first night I was a third of the way in, and had to force myself to go to bed. The second day, I exclaimed, "Reading this book is like watching Jaws! Something bad is going to happen." They just looked at me and smiled -- a little sadly, I thought -- but said not a word. No spoilers from them.
Well, not from me either. But I can recommend this book in terms of its art: the relationships Green draws, among the teens, and between them and adults, all ring true (though they don't all come off well). In the starkest of terms, here's the set-up: Hazel, Isaac, and Augustus meet at the support group, and feel their way forward into a friendships complicated by the fact that each of them is -- so far, anyway -- a cancer survivor. Hazel and Augustus bond over a the experience of reading an experimental novel, a novel that ends with the apparent death of the main character from cancer, leaving a number of plot threads hanging. They hatch a plot to have a private audience with the author, by a reclusive ex-patriot now living in Amsterdam, in which he'll tie up the loose ends.
The Fault In Our Stars is a story is about coming to terms with loose ends; about getting used to the idea that life will disappoint you; about being grateful anyway; about the way a book can matter to you, even in someways more than a person; about how we deal with the ultimate spoiler of the story of our lives, the one we all live under, the only part we all know ahead of time: each one of us is going to die.
And how to live in the meantime? What standards do we use to evaluate our lives? This is where the book intersects most obviously with Clearwater. I don't want to wrest The Fault In Our Stars into a commercial for Sudbury education, but this theme resonates strongly with what I observe at the school: students are given the room to find for themselves the criteria they will judge themselves. The usual criteria in our society has to do with accomplishment, with how much we do, and this tends to crowd out other considerations. One character says it very well:
The real heroes anyway aren't the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.There is a lot of noticing that goes on in this book -- one poignant scene rings the changes on William Carlos Williams' famous poem about the red wheelbarrow, saying over and over how "So much depends upon" one usually-neglected detail after another. There are a many, many beautiful lines. It is funny, and sad, and extremely thought-provoking, without once pointing out to you how thought-provoking it is. I'm grateful to it not just for making more reflective about my own life, but for the conversations it's sparked with students. I know I shouldn't be that surprised -- it's a New York Times best seller, after all -- but it caught me off-guard when, as I got on the bus last Friday, Kallisti looked at the book in my hand and exclaimed, "The Fault In Our Stars! That's such a good book!"
At some point about halfway through, I texted Maddy: "It's weird. I care about these people who are only marks on paper, and I want them to be happy."
She texted back: "That's exactly how I felt."