How many of you have ever heard of the old adage, “Age is just a number, not a mindset?” I felt like this saying was getting tattooed on my forehead when as I read Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. One book traces the second coming of a forty-something divorcee, whereas the other book is a tender love story between two witty teen cancer patients. Can’t get more different that, amiright?! However, the more I mulled over these two stories, the more I realized that the two books DO have some similarities. They both have central themes of “carpe diem” and finding new life through love.
Stella Payne, 42, fit and divorced, has it all—a lovely 11 year old son, a nice house in the Bay Area, a well-paying job as a financial systems analyst, but she feels lately that she’s lost her “groove.” Alone in the house with nothing to do when her son goes to visit his father for two weeks, she spontaneously books a nine day trip at a luxury resort in Jamaica to get some serious rest and relaxation. Much to her surprise when she arrives to Jamaica, she gets a whole lot more enjoyment than fruity rum punch drinks on a powdery white sand beach—she meets, hits off, and hooks up with the hotel’s 20 year old chef’s assistant, Winston Shakespeare. On her return home, back on her home turf, she cannot quite let go of wondering whether there was more to their relationship than a simple fling. She flies Winston Shakespeare to visit her in San Francisco and he easily wins over her son, her sisters and pretty much makes himself essential in Stella’s life. He even convinces her to quit her cushy job and re-start her artisan furniture business.
This May-December romance runs relatively smooth without a whole lot of obstacles—the greatest obstacle being Stella’s own freak-outs on dating a hunk who is twenty years younger than herself. And not to mention Stella displaying an intense concern of odors and hygiene, which is a bit disconcerting. Terri McMillan writes Stella in a stream of consciousness style complete with lots of run-on sentences and devoid of punctuation. The lack of structure in the narration reveals Stella’s personality as a revved up woman determined to lock in on what she truly enjoys doing and rediscover the freshness and joy of living. While I love the message of renewal and rejuvenation in Stella, I find the abstract structure of the story feels sloppy and the secondary characters did not feel fully fleshed out.
On the other hand, you have John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars which deals with two protagonists in the first bloom of life and love, with a cruel twist—they are both cancer patients. Hazel-- a 16 year old terminal cancer patient whose revolutionary medical miracle has bought her a few years of life--hits it off with Augustus “Gus” Waters—a survivor of osteosarcoma-- after meeting at a Cancer Kid Support group in a church basement. They bond over the shared love of Hazel’s favorite book An Imperial Affliction and their mutual friendship with Isaac, another cancer patient in the support group. Their interest in each other is pretty instantaneous, although Hazel spends quite a bit of time trying to compartmentalize her feelings and ignore her growing affection for Gus. Her reasoning in avoiding relationships is that since she will very likely die soon from her cancer, she’d like to leave as little of a mark on people as possible as a way to lessen the aftereffects of her eventual death. Gus Waters is almost the opposite—he seeks attention, notoriety and fears oblivion. They travel to Amsterdam using Gus’s Make a Wish opportunity in order to meet Van Houten, the author of The Imperial Affliction. Their trip has some serious lows—they find that the author of their favorite book is an alcoholic jerk who dismisses them instantly—and some wonderful highs—Hazel and Grace sweetly fall in love amidst the classic charms of Amsterdam. When they get back to the US, Gus tells Hazel that his cancer has returned. The rest of the book traces the decline of a sparkling personality that most of YA fandom loves.
The writing is clear, the characters are witty with funny remarks and repartees, and the storyline is tender, funny, fearless, and heartbreaking. One of the things that makes this book so powerful is that John Green really broke the clichéd mold of the saintly terminal patient who is brave and cheerful in the face of adversity. Hazel, Grace and even Isaac are bright, yet dark and most matter of fact about their diagnosis and prognosis. And because I’m a librarian and a lover of words, I just have to mention that there are some unforgettable lines in the book that come off as pure poetry and resonate with the reader, such as “My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations,” or “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” One might argue that Hazel, Grace, and Isaac are too witty and too full of gallows humor to even exist, however I say it is part of human nature to find humor and happiness in a bleak situation and John Green illustrates that beautifully.
I think it's pretty evident who my winner is. I pick John Green's The Fault in Our Stars because of the quality of world building, storytelling, and the bittersweet message of the book--that a short life can be a good life indeed, especially if allow yourself to reach for the stars.