The classic Victorian novelist reviews the recent YA best-seller.
I read this novel on the recommendation of Mrs. Periwig, the kind if simple-hearted proprietor of a Gentlemen's Salon of Hirsute Enhancement, where I had availed myself of the offer of a half-price beard perm and highlights, it being a Thursday and otherwise quiet.
“Now Mr. Dickens,” said Mrs. Periwig, once my facial appurtenance had received her attention and we had achieved the stage in the procedure where I was to rest and allow the chemicals to do their various forms of magic, “Perhaps I can offer you this to read while you wait? I feel sure you would enjoy it.”
She thrust a volume into my hands, and I examined the cover with apprehension. Mrs. Periwig is an adherent of those types of literature in which a young woman meets a young man, declares she hates him, whereupon she pursues him relentlessly until he is forced, possibly by exhaustion, to marry her.
“Is the book a romance?” I asked.
“Yes!” Then upon spying my expression, she pressed on: “But not just any romance, Mr. Dickens. Although it does contain lovers, these lovers will appeal to you sir, of that I am quite sure.”
“And why might that be?” I queried, intrigued despite myself.
“Because they are dying! Just like in your stories,” she said, and with that she hurried away to deal with the moustache of another client, which had, due to an over-application of wax, become attached to the lapels of his jacket.
With two hours to fill and little else but the muffled cries of my fellow patron to distract me, I decided to peruse the novel.
The book in question goes by the title The Fault in Our Stars, and its author by the name of Mr. Green. Mrs. Periwig’s assessment proved to be accurate in at least two respects: Firstly, it is a romance; secondly, everyone — with few exceptions — is dying. But what about the third of her assertions? Could my natural aversion to romance be, through a preponderance of early demise, for once overcome?
Certainly it is true that I have a habit of killing children in my fiction. Think of Tiny Tim, of Little Nell. Some authors could stand accused of betraying their characters by throwing them under a trolley. Such gentle treatments are not for me.
But the truth, dear reader, is that sentimentality sells. Therefore, I cannot with good conscience condemn Mr. Green for spotting this connection and employing it ruthlessly. While I, for reasons of delicacy and taste, confine myself to one dying child per story, Mr. Green demonstrates no such scruples. The Fault in Our Stars contains not just Little Nell or Tiny Tim, but Little Nell and Tiny Tim. Both of Mr. Green’s central protagonists are condemned to an uncertain future by virtue of life-threatening illness, a burden which they shoulder without a murmur of complaint. Not content with this, Mr. Green then supplies a supporting cast of dying children, all of whom also suffer with a cheerful fortitude that would give pause to a Royal Navy Marine. If invoking an emotional response in drama is a simple matter of choking a kitten, A Fault in Our Stars, in its bid to engage our empathy, strangles a sufficient quantity of felines to supply the entire Battersea glove trade for several weeks.
What then of the romance? For once, I can have little complaint. These lovers avoid playing the usual game of professing to hate one another — indeed, they have no time to, given they are both likely to be dead within a fortnight. But forced by convention to postpone the inevitable for at least 200 pages, Mr. Green supplies his characters with various physical impediments to overcome and, in a refreshing change to the usual female-pursues-male scenario, has Augustus chase Hazel. Mr. Green does not let up on the pathos here: Imagine a one-legged Little Nell relentlessly hunting down a tubercular Tiny Tim through the streets of Amsterdam, and you will understand that Mr. Green does not allow the sight of a finish line to distract him from the business of causing us to scrabble for an unsoaked handkerchief.
So gentle reader, you must still be wondering about that third assertion: Is this a romance of which I could finally approve?
Alas, it is not — and the reason is simple: For every Little Nell, there must exist a Quilp; for every Tiny Tim, an Ebenezer Scrooge. A hero, in short, requires an anti-hero. Mindful of this necessity, Mr. Green supplies one in the form of a certain Peter Van Houten. Mr. Van Houten is a vile character. He drinks. He pontificates. When presented with the opportunity to satisfy a child’s dying wish, he refuses. If someone gave Mr. Van Houten a kitten to pet … dear reader, I will leave you to construct the outcome.
But what, you ask, could be the reason for my ire? I created Bill Sykes, a faithless, brutal murderer. I created the odious Wackford Squeers. I created treacherous Uriah Heep. What possible difficulty could I have with Mr. Van Houten?
My difficulty with Van Houten is this: He is a writer.
Upon my discovery of Mr. Green’s betrayal of my sacred calling, I tore the protective covering from my beard with a cry of rage, thrust the volume into Mrs. Periwig’s hands and fled from the premises, no matter the consequences to my unfinished treatment.
Over many hours thereafter, I paced the banks of the Thames, considering my reaction. My final conclusion is this: If you are vexed by a work which uses an author as a villain, then The Fault in Our Stars is one you should avoid. Anyone else (although I can scarcely believe such cold-hearted creatures exist) will adore it.
And with these words, dear reader, I draw my assessment to a close. I have a draft to work on, edits to complete and a wife who urgently requires to know why my beard has turned green.
Cath Murphy is a freelance writer and review editor at LitReactor.com. She lives in Norway, owns more pets than is sensible and knows all the words to Smash Mouth’s “Allstar.” Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, unreliable, contradictory — oh, that’s four.
KEEP READING: More on Novels