***Note: this review presumes that you've read the book.***
There was a lot to admire in TFiOS: it's beautifully written--absolutely gorgeous on a word-by-word level, and there are magnificent, moving lines like "I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once." But in order to appreciate the language you have to accept that the presentation is highly stylized, almost mannered. I hear no one talking about this. I do hear many reviewers saying, "Teens don't talk like this, but it's okay, they're John-Green teens, and it works." I think maybe on a subconscious level they see that the writing is stylized, but they never pause to think that perhaps it means the whole novel (including plot) is stylized--that Green meant for it not to be realistic. (This may not have been his intention, it's just a hypothesis.) It's true that the teens in all of his novels are eloquent and glib, but in TFiOS they are over-the-top, Super-Sized John-Green kids.
Despite its beauty, I thought the lofty speech of the teen characters undermined the message that Green otherwise tries to convey in the book: that kids who are dying are not special snowflakes, they're human beings just like us. Or maybe it does serve his the point: we're all like these teens, diamonds in the rough who are poets if only an author could get a hold of our tongues. I also thought their eloquence paradoxically took away some of the romance: Hazel and Gus never achieve verbal intimacy because they're so busy making clever quips to each other.
On a pure taste level, this is the only John Green book I've read in which the characters are kind people whom I actively like (except when they're dealing with Van Houten, see below). This is a matter of opinion, I'm sure, and maybe isn't related to literary excellence, but most of the time Green's characters don't have a kindness that warms me to them; they're sort of brilliant jerks, even by the end of their journey, after their character growth. When Hazel shows the little girl her oxygen tank and let's her try it, I really began to like her.
The whole book is actually sort of like a dream. On morning jogs with my snarky young-adult son I would tell him the plot as far as I'd gotten and his going theory for a few days was, "We're going to find out that Hazel is in the hospital dying and this is her delirium." And do you know what? It works very well as an explanation until the very end! Take, for instance, Gus driving himself to the 7-Eleven parking lot to buy cigarettes when he was literally dying (he was bedridden in hospice at that point, if I'm not mistaken, which would have made the excursion nearly impossible); it felt dream-like, as if Hazel were hallucinating. Take, for instance, their experiences in Amsterdam. An ordinary taxi driver gives, in perfect English, a travel-guide description of his city: "Amsterdam is like the rings of a tree: It gets older as you get closer to the center...Many of the canal houses date from the Golden Age, the 17th century...Our city has a rich history, even though many tourists are only wanting to see the Red Light District...Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it's a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin." A random old man who gives up his seat on the bus sees them looking at the elm seeds and says in flawless English, "Amsterdam's spring snow. The iepen throw confetti to greet the spring." A young waiter says, "Do you know what Dom Perignon said after inventing champagne? He called out to his fellow monks, 'Come quickly: I am tasting the stars.' Welcome to Amsterdam." This sort of unfortunate infodump, with charactes speaking preternaturally, could only have worked if the story was delirious dream, which it isn't. (I think Green received a grant to research in Amsterdam, and to me it feels like these portions of the book are forced--or not as mercilessly edited as they should have been, perhaps to justify the time he spent there.)
Hazel and Gus's "meet cute" results in a too-quick devotion on August's part, particularly when we learn much later that her resemblance to Caroline Mathers disturbed him. I suppose you could argue that Gus might have been in a hurry to fall, given what his illness has taught them about the brevity of life--but I don't think the text supports it. Still, this is a minor complaint: it's hard to have a love story unfold slowly when two people meet for the first time at the beginning of a novel. Many great books have small but necessary elements of love at first sight.
I found the overall plot predictable; I knew Augustus, the "strong one," was going to die. And to my dismay I found the story emotionally manipulative. I think it's because I never stopped feeling like these teens were fictional characters (see: "mannered" and "stylized" above), which made me feel removed while I was reading: hyper-aware that it was literature, and not transported into the world Green was trying to create. I wanted these clinical thoughts to carry me through the book objectively, and I resented that the subject matter, not the plight of these specific characters, caused me to cry. We bring our own associations with illness and dying to any cancer book, so it's almost too easy for the author to invoke those emotions. In the end, if you don't have the sense that the characters are real people, and don't bond with them, it feels manipulative.
On to Van Houten. I thought he became a plot and character mistake toward the end. First, the quest involving Van Houten felt flimsy: the Imperial Affliction concept was not strong enough, and I was not invested in it, so I didn't care about uncovering the missing ending of his book. It felt like a tool for Green to get Hazel and Gus on a road trip, but the goal isn't something we care about. I think Green would argue that's the point: it's the ending of a single book that not many people have read, but because our protagonists worry about the damage they'll leave behind in their ordinary lives, they care deeply about it, even though it's just a woman's marriage and the fate of a hamster. In other words, the reader doesn't have to care about it, because the characters do. Yet I wonder whether Van Houten's book (or some other device, not a book and an author) could have been designed to carry that message better? It turned into sound bites they were seeking: the Tulip Man, the Mother, the Hamster. I understand that Green wants Hazel's underlying obsession with this book to be her own anxiety about the impact her death will have on her mother, but since we never become intimate with The Imperial Affliction as a text, it becomes more of a MacGuffin than a metaphor.
It became trite that An Imperial Affliction was about Van Houten's daughter, and that her death was one of the catalysts sending him into an emotional spiral, because it wasn't clearly explored as part of the "grenade" worry that Hazel has. In fact, Van Houten's world was destroyed in the way Hazel worries she'll destroy her parents. I wanted to see Green address the fact that Hazel's worst fears came true for Van Houten, and see her grapple with what this means for her. I worried that Green noticed this and pasted over it by having Van Houten make a point of saying the divorce and his bad personality preceded his daughter's death, removing the relevance for Hazel. And to further dismiss the Van Houten dilemma, rather than grapple with it in a meaningful way, Green gives Hazel's mom a secret psychological strength: she has been preparing for Hazel's death by going to school, without telling Hazel.
But on to the real problem: Peter Van Houten himself became ridiculous. When he showed up at the funeral, and then again *poof* in the back seat of Hazel's car (in the same suit), I thought my son's delirious-dream theory actually had merit. Van Houten was truly like an apparition; a ghost. It was so surreally silly, maybe it was Hazel's dream. But no, it turns out, it was real.
Finally, why would Gus, who can write a letter super-eloquently at the end of his life, ask Van Houten, who had failed them so utterly and was clearly non compos mentis, to write Hazel's eulogy? Gus's description of Hazel, ostensibly written so that Van Houten would know her well enough to compose the eulogy, was already the tribute. Why was that whole section of the book necessary? Was it just so that we could have a few extra pages of Hazel futilely trying to find Augustus's last communication to her? The book is sort of short in word count (65k) by current standards, and I wondered whether Green was searching for a last-minute conflict to extend it a bit.
Things I thought were genuine mistakes, in need of editing:
1. Hazel told Gus "only once when they first met" that she was a vegetarian, and then remarked that he remembered it when they went to Oranjee. But in fact they sat next to each other on an international flight, where at least two full meals are served, so he would have seen her take the vegetarian option.
2. She says she only vaguely knows about cancer, in the way that most people know about electric circuits--yet she's thoroughly knowledgeable about not only her own treatments and equipment, but the specific cancers of Isaac and her support group peers.
3. Augustus tells the whole sad story of Caroline Mathers right before they meet Van Houten, explaining in detail how the cancer destroyed her brain and her personality, and then Gus and Hazel scream at Van Houten and engage his insanity while acknowledging that he's mentally ill. Later Gus calls Van Houten an "asshat." Gus, who watched his girlfriend go through precisely this involuntary mental decline and knew what a tragedy it was. This is a small mistake that I've noticed before in Green's work: he creates exceptional and precocious characters and then occasionally falters, deciding that he has to make them believable teens by doing something "teen-ish," which paradoxically makes them less believable because the behavior is out of character. I spent that whole scene in Van Houten's house thinking, "The Gus and Hazel I know would just leave, they wouldn't engage him further."
4. There's either a continuity error in the egg-throwing scene, or it's too vaguely described. The only way it can possibly work is if it's a one-way street, and Hazel's not parked, but sort of double-parked, and looking right, through the passenger window. Also, she snaps the photo of Gus and Isaac by pulling herself onto the window ledge of the car and propping her elbows on the roof. This is the girl who can't walk through a metal detector without her oxygen tank for 30 seconds, and now she can do calisthenics like pull herself onto the ledge of a car window? Have you ever tried that? Core muscles, baby.
5. "For the first time in years, I was the healthiest person in the room." Well, no, Isaac is the healthiest. She's just the most mobile, because he's blind.
6. Tiny things bothered me, like the fact that Hazel tells us her science teacher explained that it's windy and freezing in clouds, and later when she's having trouble breathing she says, "the air thick and still like we were in a cloud."
7. The real Van Houten family began developing the Dutch process of cocoa in 1815 and it was perfected in 1828, not in "the seventeenth century." The company was sold out of the family in 1962, which makes it kind of unlikely that the Van Houten decendants would still be rich today.
8. Oh! And I almost forgot the unfortunate, slightly cheezy moment of the book that is only a mistake in an aesthetic sense: when they were in the Anne Frank house and they kissed, Hazel tells us that people began gathering around them three-deep, and she worries it's because they're kissing in a somewhat sacred place. I actually said out loud, "No, John, don't go there. Don't do it," and voila, the bystanders started clapping, as if this were a made-for-TV-movie. Kissing scene ruined.
My favorite line in the book, which I never hear anyone mention, belongs to Van Houten: "I frankly find the reality of readers wholly unappetizing." It makes me wonder about Green's efforts at reaching out to his readers, and how he might secretly feel about his public persona--about the labor of being John Green, which must be considerable. Van Houten is, in a lot of ways, a stand-in for Green in this book I think. A caricature of how he speaks and writes.