Paper Towns by John Green
Quentin – Q – a teenage boy agrees, to help his childhood crush, Margo Roth Spiegelman, on an all-night road trip of revenge. Along the way, old feelings arise but in the morning, Margo has disappeared and in her wake, she’s left a breadcrumb trail of clues for Q to follow.
The plot is simple, like most of Green’s novels but here, it works. I love the revenge road-trip and how the events let the chemistry build between Q and Margo. I like the “paper towns” idea, how Green weaves it into his fictional story and gives the plot more depth and summed up perfectly by Margo:
“It’s a paper town. I mean look at it, Q: look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm… All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too.”
I don’t buy the whole, Margo-leaves-and-the-school-goes-to-hell scenario. It makes it sound like she’s the glue that holds everything together and she’s not. She’s not even missed when she’s missing. Jasper Hanson suddenly turns into a bully with her disappearance – WTF? In the countdown hours of their road trip, Q documents that he’s sleeping (“I sleep”) but how could you do this if you’re asleep. I’m splitting hairs but it doesn’t make sense. Overall, the story is building towards something but it never really gets there. The conclusion deflates the tension and the mystery and completely punctures the story.
The first-person narrative style is intimate. I prefer it to third-person in these sorts of stories that encompass social issues like depression, suicide, alcoholism, sexuality, racism and so on. The narrative voice works well in all of Green’s stories though I feel at times that the voice breaks down in parts and reminds me of someone much older rather than a teenage boy that’s a bit mature for his age. With the company he keeps, we still have to believe he’s a teenage boy at heart and not a man in his late-twenties. The voice is also inconsistent, particularly in the middle and concluding parts.
The most defining characteristic of Ben is his use of the word “honeybunnies” which grates on your nerves every few pages. The most memorable part of Radar’s character is his name. There’s not a whole lot of depth to the characters in the story, with the excpetion of Margo (and maybe Q but only for the initial part of the story when he’s with Margo) I love Margo. Again, she’s like Alaska in Looking for Alaska. She’s like the Sun and the other characters are planets and minor stars orbiting around. She is sharp and funny, cute but cunning:
- “”[B]ut with the Vaseline, you want the one that’s bigger than your fist. There’s like a Baby Vaseline, then there’s a Mommy Vaseline, and then there’s a big fat Daddy of a Vaseline, and that’s the one you want. If they don’t have that, then, get like, three of the Mommies.””
- “”We’re not going to break anything. Don’t think of it as breaking into SeaWorld. Think of it as visiting SeaWorld in the middle of the night for free.””
- “”Ninjas don’t splash other ninjas,” Margo complained.
“The true ninja doesn’t make a splash at all.”
A wildcard through and through though it has to be said, she’s a clone of Alaska in Looking for Alaska. She’s the driving force of the story and her involvement raises the stakes, the risk and ultimately, the excitement for the reader. The other characters are fine, all a bit same-same both in the story and in Green’s other novels. Margo is the measure for characterization. Compared to her, the other characters seem a bit flat and one-dimensional:
- “I wrote on the corner of my notebook: Compared to those freshmen, I spent the morning in a field of rainbows frolicking with puppies.“
- “Radar nudged me with one of the beer cups. “Look at our Ben! He’s some sort of autistic savant when it comes to keg stands.”” Apparently, the characters are as eloquent when they’re drunk as when they’re stone cold sober. Interesting.
Q could easily be replaced by Looking for Alaska‘s Miles or An Abundance of Katherines‘ Colin. Green does clone-characterization like no other.
Quality of Writing: 10/20
I like the writing and the quips aren’t all cringe-tastic. It annoys me that the contractions that are used (it’s, instead of it is; I’d, instead of I would) aren’t carried the whole way through the story. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not but it raises the question of consistency. The language is a bit OTT in places. Some of the phrases are questionable and Green has a tendency to spoon-feed the reader. Information overkill.
Green’s dramatization of detail and scene-setting is incredible and what’s more, it doesn’t take us out of the moment. I’ve been to Orlando five times and the descriptions of Sea World and International Drive and the references to alligators are spot-on, anchoring the story in a particular place.
Comparative Literature: 5/10
The story is an improvement on Looking for Alaska and I much prefer Margo to Alaska. I do feel as though Green can’t write different characters in the way other authors can. His ideas differ but essentially, his characters all fall under the same, small umbrella. Gayle Forman demonstrates versatility and evolution of character between If I Stay (Mia) and I Was Here (Cody). Green shares similar problems to Stephen Chbosky’s Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Where Charlie reads as being much younger (due to his spontaneous crying), Q reads as being considerably older. The Orlando setting is concrete and the dramatization of scenic and communal detail cannot be faulted much like Forman’s Washington setting in I Was Here.
Overall Score: 58/100
Rate it or Slate it?
Rate it: Despite the sameness between Green’s titles, Margo is the element of “dark play” that increase the risk and raises the stakes. If you haven’t read any of Green’s titles before, I would suggest this one as a starting and finishing point.
Books You May Also Like:
I Was Here by Gayle Forman – delves deeper into the suicide theme and delivers on story and character
Looking for Alaska by John Green – though not as executed as well as Paper Towns, this story is a good read and the narrative-countdown technique piques the reader’s interest
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – an interesting story with themes of abuse and mental health delivered more subtly than the two, previous recommended reads