Please note: this review of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars contains plot spoilers. This is a guest post from Sanne Vliegenthart, who offers a Dutch perspective (with pictures!) on the newly released novel. Sanne also recently posted a spoiler free video review of the book on her YouTube channel, which you can find at this link or embedded at the bottom of this point.
“Dutch is not so much a language as an ailment of the throat.”
Amsterdam, the city of canals, bikes and the Anne Frank House. For Hazel and Augustus it was a city filled with stars and flowery snow, but also of disappointment. For many readers of The Fault In Our Stars Amsterdam must seem like a dream, something they have only seen in pictures, but for me it was a whole different story.
I live about 45 minutes from Amsterdam and to me it is the city where I met my first Nerdfighter friends and John Green. I’ve taken friends from America and England to Amsterdam on several occasions, which means that I’ve had the opportunity to experience the city as a tourist, too. So when I put my camera around my neck and walked out of the train station in Amsterdam last week, it felt all too familiar. I wanted to walk in John’s footsteps and find the places mentioned in TFIOS, for myself and to share it with people who wouldn’t be able to do this themselves.
I headed straight for the Vondelpark, dodging bikes left and right as I tried to get some good pictures. An old man even made a disapproving noise as he biked past me, thinking I hadn’t noticed him approaching behind me. Sometimes it seems like Dutch people have a built-in bike radar and I’ve often found myself grabbing a foreign friend’s arm and pulling them back on the sidewalk, while a cyclist zoomed past. It’s no surprise that TFiOS has so many mentions of bikes: women with kids and groceries, friends on the back of each other’s bikes, they’re everywhere!
After walking through the Vondelpark for a couple of minutes, I went out through the gates and found myself right in the middle of the street where Van Houten is supposed to live. And boy, did John pick a nice street. I looked through windows and saw enormous kitchens and large walls filled with books. Vines obscured the entrances to some houses and everything was exactly as I had imagined. Number 157 doesn’t exist unfortunately, but almost every house seemed like it could be the right one.
As I walked around the corner, the first thing I saw in the short street was a green sign that showed where Hotel De Filosoof was located. I stood on my toes to peek inside the high windows and saw red walls, high chairs and chandeliers.
I took the tram back to the city center, making sure to ‘check in’ with my OV chip card. This is one of the experiences from the book that I’m sure almost every tourist goes through. You hop on a tram and instead of handing the ticket to the lady behind the desk, you need to hold it in front of a scanner near the door. It isn’t difficult to imagine John discovering the same thing after getting on a tram for the first time. It’s one of those things that seem so ordinary, but you see tourist struggle with it every day. These details are what made the Amsterdam experience in the book so real to me.
It is a shame it isn’t spring, because I would have loved to capture the falling petals and the people sitting next to the canals, or on a boat, enjoying a glass of beer. There is no doubt that Amsterdam is best experienced in the spring and summer, when everyone seems cheerful and takes some time to enjoy their city.
When Augustus and Hazel are having dinner at Oranjee – which does not exist, unfortunately – a woman cheerfully yells a compliment at them. This, like the tram journey, feels so real, because it is real. When the weather is nice, the whole city seems to be in a good mood.
There are some things that did not feel quite realistic in the Amsterdam chapters. I’m afraid that most Dutch people, whether they are on a tram or waiting on your table, aren’t quit as poetic as they are described in the book. They like to keep to themselves, especially when they’re on public transportation. However, this does seem to change a bit when they encounter English-speaking tourists. But while they might try to make contact at times, the English used by these random people seemed a little bit too good to be true. This was a different case with Lidewij Vliegenthart.
I have quite a bit of an invested interest in Lidewij as a character for two reasons: 1) she was named after my friend Lidewij and has my last name – Vliegenthart – and 2) I am a Dutch girl and currently doing my masters in English literature. It will come as no surprise that I couldn’t help but overanalyze certain aspects of her usage of the English language. When we meet her for the first time Van Houten asks her: “How can someone pursuing a postgraduate degree in American literature display such abominable English language skills?” Of course this is not meant as a serious attack on her ability to speak English, because we already know from her emails that her English is quite good. What particularly struck me is that Lidewij does not use any contractions in regular speech, which makes it seem a bit formal, which doesn’t really fit her age. It is, however, a sign that she is not used to speaking English in day-to-day life. The lack of contractions and for example the repetition of ‘very’ (instead of another adverb) when she is apologizing, show that English is not her native language. These little details make her background very believable, especially to Dutch speakers.
It’s easy to see from the book how much John enjoyed his two months in the Netherlands, and I can’t imagine how different TFIOS would have been without this experience. Needless to say, I can’t wait until spring, when I’ll definitely be reading The Fault In Our Stars, sipping some ‘wrong coffee’ and sitting in the sun next to one of Amsterdam’s canals.
Editor’s Note: Don’t forget that you can join editors Melissa and Rosianna in a live chat discussion of The Fault in Our Stars this Wednesday, 18th January (11pm GMT, 6pm EST). Be prepared with lots of discussion points, favourite bits and perhaps an intense colour-coded highlighting system? Who would do such a thing…? The link to the chat will be posted on the LeakyNews homepage. Also, if you haven’t checked it out already, Melissa and Rosianna recorded a spoilery podcast discussion of the novel, which you can listen to at this link.
Last, but not least, Sanne’s video review of The Fault in Our Stars (no spoilers).