TL;DR: A little too cheesy and pretentious, but it delivers what it sets to do—you just have to remind yourself that you’re reading a young adult book.
It’s cheesy and pretentious because the main characters are teenagers who contemplate about oblivion, who considers “not” smoking a metaphor, and who talks and thinks as if everything they’re saying is meant to be for quotes.com. But I can forgive that, sure. I don’t hate the book because it’s cheesy, but I do think it’s cheesy.
Did I cringe in some parts? Yes, I did. I also remember rolling my eyes a couple times. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, or maybe it’s the synthetic atmosphere of the narrative—maybe both.
The author, John Green, sets the story in a world where fictional and non-fictional elements meet. The stuff he wrote about cancer were admittedly fictional. He made them up, and he reveals so in both the intro and the acknowledgements. There’s also a made up band, Hectic Glow, and a made up author, Van Houten, with a made up book.
The Fault in Our Stars does not claim to be an accurate depiction of reality—it’s fiction, duh—but I feel like those made up stuff feel so contrived that they cancel out the merits of the non-made up stuff. Phalanxifor is fictional, but philosophers like Parmenides are real, according to Google. So now I’m not sure if Green indeed based the whole “infinities monologue” on Parmenides’ actual philosophy, or if he just made that up as well. I’m too lazy to Google further, I’m sorry. I just feel like it could have been better if he attempted to keep everything legit, rather than just selectively chose to fictionalize the stuff he’s not very familiar with.
I also think the whole story arc about Van Houten is forced and conveniently added to make way for an out-of-town trip and some disappointment/hurdles for our protagonist. You know, just to establish that although Hazel has Cancer Perks, she can’t get everything she wants because Van Houten turns out to be a dick.
The book also seems very much aware of its efforts to counter the “conventions of the genre.” We see Gus hating himself during his last days instead of “keep[ing] his humor [and] not waver[ing] in his courage.” We also see Hazel’s family completely accepting of Hazel’s fate—she’s going to die and they know it and they’re not gonna go whiny and dramarama about it.
Yet still, I don’t think the book reinvents the genre as most people say it does. It’s still your ordinary young adult love story, except the kids have cancer. I can forgive the cheese and the pretentious existential shit because they’re teenagers with cancer. The two main characters, then, are only compelling because they’re about to die. Take that away and there’s nothing much to tell, really.
To call this an instant classic is maybe a little too much, but I’m not gonna say it’s overrated. I get where the hype is coming from—it’s a young adult book that tugs at the heart of its readers. This is the type of book that gets a teenager to appreciate the joy of reading, and I do hope that they continue to read even beyond the YA genre.