I hopped on “The Fault in Our Stars” bandwagon rather early.The book came out in January of 2012. I read it that September over the course of a couple of breezy afternoons in Cannes at the 2012 WSOP Europe event, shedding a tear or two, cracking a smile, and thinking to myself, “what a great book.”
So, I was quite excited to hustle on down to the theaters when it came out last week. Knowing it would make me cry–likely multiple times–I basically forced my friend Erik to see it with me, though he was not sure it would be his thing.
“Oh yeah, the weepy cancer thing,” he told me.
Yes, “The Fault In Our Stars” is a tearjerker, but the book became a YA sensation because the central romance is exactly the type of thing young adults like to swoon over. As an adult, I appreciated the careful balancing act in tone as the heroine makes jokes, bluntly discusses her impending death, and lets herself be emotionally vulnerable around her love, the preposterous concoction that is Augustus Waters.
As I get older, I look back on times I thought I was a mature adult and chuckle. Looking at my decisions, I was clearly clueless, but I thought I knew exactly what I wanted and what I needed. When I was 22, I thought I had pretty much grown up, but when I look at my life choices then, I can only draw one conclusion: Christ, I was an idiot.
While looking back on my own foibles is a fun exercise, I tend to have the same experiences when reading Young Adult fiction. Yes, I am one of those folks who reads The Hunger Games and Divergent. Now I even have a great excuse to feed my YA addiction, as my college roommate Heather Demetrios is a successful YA author.
I enjoy these books, don’t get me wrong. They are well-written, often moreso than popular “adult” fiction. However, each of them has the similar problem, which isn’t really a problem at all given the intended audience…
The boys in these books are hilarious examples of what teenage girls think they want in a partner. Traits that, as an adult, you come to realize are signs of danger are lauded in these books and there is no more twee example than Augustus Waters.
Let me say, I love “The Fault in Our Stars”, I cannot be more clear about this. It is wholly accurate in depicting Hazel’s affection for the boy who walks around with unlit cigarettes in his mouth. Yes, if you haven’t seen the film or the much-used promotional clip, Augustus chomps on cigarettes but doesn’t smoke because it is a metaphor. Yeah.
We’re expected to believe this 17 year old is a basketball stud who no longer likes basketball. He loves first person shooter video games, but he can see the deeper meaning in the obscure books the novel’s heroine, Hazel, likes to read. He sets up picnics with Dutch motifs, cashing in his Make-a-Wish wish to help a girl he has barely known a couple of weeks take a trip around the world.
Ladies over the age of 25, let’s discuss. In all seriousness, if you had been talking to a guy and had some sparkage, then on your second or third date he takes you on an elaborate picnic to inform you he was whisking you off to Amsterdam, you would be concerned, yes? Slow down, crazy, slow down. But, at 16, when your concept of romance is based mostly on pop culture and books like “The Fault in Our Stars”, this seems ideal. Hell, some girls even come to expect this is how they should be treated (I’m looking at you, Heidi Montag and your princess speech) Look how honest this boy is about his feelings. Look how he refuses to give up even after Hazel tells him she doesn’t think dating him is a good idea. That’s not stalking, it’s pereseverance!
This is perhaps why the older, more jaded me couldn’t get into the movie as much as the book. It is one thing to read about the boy with his cigarette metaphor. It is another to watch another person act this out on a screen the size of a billboard. The actor, Ansel Elgort, gives it the old college try, but the movie does draw attention to how this character may just be a little too over the top to be believable. You could argue going through having cancer would make any teen’s perspective on life a little different, but no matter what kind of sarcoma you produce, the fact this guy meets Hazel by basically leering at her intensely until she looks back is a skidge bit creepy in a non-teen romance context.
It isn’t a phenomenon specific to John Green’s work either. In fact, one of my favorite parts about Heather’s debut novel, Something Real, is how the main characters love interest, Patrick, is exactly the kind of boy Heather would swoon over when we were freshmen in college. He borders on what we used to call “tragic teen”, which is a term used to describe guys whose emotions and senstivity went past charming in that John Cusak sort of way and ventured instead into territory of the guy who wrote 100 poems about the girl he went on one date with and ended a mixed tape compilation with a monologue about his love for you. Patrick is the type of guy that makes parents worry because it seems like he is more concerned with giving a girl an unforgettable experience than making sure she gets a college education. He persuades her to drop everything, like homework, family, and friends, to spend time with him.
Patrick is a perfectly lovely teenager and a perfectly lovely boyfriend for the book’s main character, but I nonetheless smiled at some of his gestures, like pulling the main character Chloe off to the janitor’s closet with no explanation. I know 19-year-old Heather lived for these types of things. I did too, once.
The problem isn’t these boys. Green and Demetrios get it right that this is exactly what teenage girls want–someone who is willing to break every rule for them, drop everything for them, and dream up the most elaborate romantic gestures imaginable for them. The problem is I am a 30 year old reading a book for teenagers, and, while I may get swept up in the romance, the voice in the back of my head wants to tell these girls the same thing I wish I could have told 22 year old me–these boys should not be your world. Keep your after school job, call your best friend every day, and for the love of all that is holy please do not drop everything at a moment’s notice when he asks every single time. You know what else is romantic? Planning a day in advance. Calling and asking before doing. Being courteous and mindful.
Augustus clearly loves Hazel, but you can see that all of these dramatically romantic boys, have something in common: selfishness. He isn’t just throwing that picnic for you, he is throwing that picnic because he wants people to think he is incredible. Augustus even says as much, he wants to be remembered. In the book, he even has a girlfriend before Hazel that he stays with purely because he wants to be the nice guy, not because it is in her best interest. These boys want all of your time in part because they think you are amazing, but also in part because they aren’t as conscious of how valuable your time, be it at work, with friends, or alone, may be to you.
I will give Augustus this though. He does one thing that is the most selfless, loving gesture in the entire book–he lets Hazel have her trip to Amsterdam, then breaks some bad news to her only after her special moment is winding down. In my younger years, I may have perceived it as dishonest, but now I see it as the most caring thing this boy and his ceaseless gestures does for the girl he loves. He puts her first.
So, young ladies who may stumble upon this, know that sometimes the best romantic gestures are not the grand ones. Yes, the guys with the picnics and the poems and the love songs can be great, but so can the guys who quietly let you take the last cookie without saying a word. Just know that there is love and romance in the things guys don’t do or say. The absence of action isn’t necessarily the absence of affection. At 30, I think I have learned that lesson and taken it to heart, but who knows? Maybe at 38, I’ll look back on this time in my life and say, “Christ, I was an idiot.”