What We Talk about When We Talk about Crying: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

February 28, 2013 | 11 3 min read

coverA friend of mine told me I should read The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s young adult bestseller, after she finished it last fall. “I cried my eyes out,” she said. When I walked up to the counter of a bookstore, a few weeks later, with The Fault in Our Stars in my hand, the manager said, “This is the only book that’s ever made me cry on the subway.” I read it in one sitting, and then it was I who was thusly cry-sharing to everyone I could find. “Just read The Fault in Our Stars in a hotel in Denver,” I texted my friend, “Will now go cry forever.”

It keeps going. In December I told my friend that all I wanted for my birthday was for her to read the book before my party. That afternoon she wrote me: “Well, I won’t ruin your birthday by showing up not having read that book, but I’m afraid I will ruin it by sobbing uncontrollably all night.” Another friend, last week, wrote to let me know that she had read the book in one day. “I have a headache from crying,” was her take.

For the last two months, no more than a few days ever go by before I’m talking to someone about The Fault in Our Stars, either because I’m begging them to read it, or because they’ve just finished reading it at my prompting. And what we talk about, always, is the crying. Be ready to cry, I say, don’t read it in public, make sure you have plenty of time to read the last 100 pages in one go. And then they tell me how much they cried, how it surprised them, even after all my promises.

Another friend needed a vacation book and asked me, “What’s that book you’re always talking about? The super sad one.”

I began to feel uncomfortable about my relationship with this book. It’s a sad book, to be sure, about two teenagers who meet in a support group for kids with cancer, but it’s also joyful, hopeful, wise, funny, romantic, and genuinely inspirational. So why, in my efforts to share this joy and hope with other people, did I keep saying, go be unspeakably sad for as long as it takes you to read a 300-page book?

I think that when we talk about The Fault in Our Stars, we go straight to the unspeakable sadness, out of all the emotions evoked, because we want to convey the incredible emotional resonance of the book. What we’re trying to say is: this book mattered deeply to me, I think it could matter deeply to you too. At some point I stopped experiencing this book as fiction, and started experiencing it personally. I read fiction so that the characters’ stories, for the time that I’m reading the book, or hopefully longer, will be important to me. And for as many books as I go through, it’s rare for one to succeed. What we’re trying to say to each other is that this is one of those rare books; that you will love the characters the way you love real people, they will make you laugh and cry and want to live a better life. We’re saying, I felt something transforming. You should feel it too.

How disappointing of us, that instead of saying any of this, we yap, “I cry! You cry! We all cry!” at each other like nimrods who’ve never articulated an emotion before. (“Hope you’re ready to cry!” said the young adult librarian when I checked out two of John Green’s earlier books. “I am!” I chirped back.) How disappointing of me, who ostensibly makes a trade of describing books to other people. I have an extensive vocabulary for books with flaws; books that fall short of the ideal. But when the ideal book comes along, I’m stumped. Is The Fault in Our Stars without flaw? Probably not. But I don’t remember what any of them are, because all I remember is how much I loved it, and apparently I don’t have a vocabulary for this situation. I’ve decided to work on that.

In the meantime, you should read The Fault in Our Stars. Besides a small infinity of other things, it will make you cry.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.