Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Book Review: "Paper Towns" by John Green

I was in a dark place. All I was reading was Soviet Union historical fiction and crime novels for an external website I'm writing reviews for in addition to my own. I was seeing the worst in humanity. You'd think after reading as much as I do that I would know that when I get caught in these reading funks the best medicine is generally Young Adult Fiction.

There's something refreshing about YA lit, and I turned to John Green to help pull me from my reading malaise. This was quite possibly the best decision I could have made. I'm familiar with Green from The Fault in Our Stars (you can read my review for that here). I knew Paper Towns wasn't supposed to be as sad as Stars, but I certainly wasn't expecting some of the surprising laugh out loud moments I had while reading this story. I would find myself with a smile on my face, if not from the humor, then from the sense of understanding the adolescent process of self-discovery.

Now, this is only my second John Green novel, but I find that he is an incredibly talented writer in that he is able to elevate the typical adolescent experience by using literature in his stories to serve as plot points and help with character development. As an admitted bibliophile, English Lit major, and general enthusiast of all things relating to reading - this is a very special thing for me to encounter in his work. I know I'm not alone.

Paper Towns is told from the perspective of Quentin Jacobsen, a straight laced senior in High School who is actually content with the general boredom of his life. Just weeks before graduation, Quentin's neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, knocks on his bedroom window. These two characters couldn't be more different from one another, but they share a childhood trauma that has always secretly bonded them. Before the upper echelons of Middle School and High School society, Quentin and Margo were grade school buddies who discovered the body of a man who committed suicide in the neighborhood park.

After this event, Quentin and Margo go down two very different paths in their adolescence. Quentin is the tame one, and Margo is wild and unpredictable. Margo runs away from home and leaves clues for her parents, she lies about dating musicians to get into clubs, she sets trends and walks among the High School elite. So, when Margo Roth Spiegelman knocks on Quentin's bedroom window to enlist his help on a revenge plan that is well-plotted and frankly quite brilliant, he barely hesitates before committing to become her accomplice. They spend the night dishing out a superb kind of justice to a list of people who have wronged them over the years. I don't want to give away any details, but I assure you it's entirely entertaining.

Quentin's night with Margo comes to a satisfying conclusion: they are friends. The answer to The Breakfast Club's lyrical question of "As you walk on by, will you call my name?" seems to be answered. A bridge between Quentin and the "coolest" girl in school has been built. There's only one issue that arises: Margo disappears.

Her parents assume she's run away again, and they change the locks; she's 18, she's an adult and they have given up trying to understand the puzzle that is their own daughter. Quentin, however, has a legitimate concern regarding Margo's well-being. On her last night in Orlando, on top of the SunTrust building, Margo remarks about how the city is nothing but a Paper Town full of paper people in their paper houses. There's something despondent in Margo, something detached, the final string of attachment to her paper life has been snapped. Her comments also mirror something that she said as a child upon discovering the body of the man that killed himself.

This incites in Quentin the propulsion to undertake a kind of quest: to find Margo Roth Spiegelman. For this quest he must enlist a comical cast of characters: his best friend Ben, who basically only cares about getting it on with some hot "honey bunny," and Radar, who is smart, sarcastic, and by far my favorite secondary character. Just because it's hilarious, I would like to add that Radar's parents own a house completely decorated in black Santas, which never once ceases to be funny when brought up in conversation.

Initially, I wasn't sure what I thought about Quentin as a character and the narrator of this story. He seemed stiff and obsessed with the girl next door, which is a story we've heard (and seen) before. What brings Quentin to life is the unexpected journey he finds himself on as he unravels the clues of Margo's disappearance. Specifically, when he reads Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (Song of Myself), and not just the highlighted parts Margo left for him to find. When Quentin really reads the poem, his entire perspective of the world begins to shift.

For John Green to bring such a timeless piece of Literature into the driving theme of this book is intellectually daring, thought provoking, and basically brilliant. Can you think of any better lesson to learn before departing for college than the interconnectedness of every living being? Quentin starts to listen to people, to loaf and observe, to not pass judgement and to step into other people's perspectives. Quentin puts to use the lessons he learns from Whitman in an effort to understand Margo, and what he comes to realize is that who Margo Roth Spiegelman is has always been just an 'idea' to him, to many people, and that the 'idea' of someone is usually very different from who they actually are internally.

There's so much fun to be had in reading this book that is part mystery, part comedy and part coming-of-age that I was sad when it was over. Quentin's journey to find Margo Roth Spiegelman is a journey to find out more about who he is in relation to others, in relation to the world, and to himself. He challenges himself to change, to grow, to see people and to put himself out there for a chance at love.

If you're looking for a story that will make you smile, make you think about your own self-discovery process, and maybe even lead you into the wise and loving arms of Walt Whitman, then read Paper Towns. It's totally worth it.

Plus, the movie is coming out soon, and well, who doesn't love a good book-to-movie experience? Find out more about the movie and watch the trailer here:


  1. I actually haven't quite been able to fall in love with his writing style yet after reading TFiOS and Looking for Alaska, and it has bothered me. Before I write him off as an author not for me, I am going to try this one! So it sounds promising so far from your review.

    Check out my recent review:

    1. I haven't read Looking for Alaska yet, but I have it at home. This one was really funny. I listened to the Audible version of it and thought is was well performed. John Green is definitely an acquired taste; he's definitely different from your usual YA fiction.

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  3. John Green made me fall in love with his writing in this book Paper Towns. It made me want to do what the characters did and made me want to go for an adventure of my life that people won't know. I love all of your books.