Wednesday, June 11, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Paper Towns by John Green

Today I review Paper Towns by John Green.

Here's what I'm not doing:
  1. I'm not reviewing The Fault in Our Stars
  2. I'm not commenting on John Green as an individual
  3. I'm not commenting on the so-called 'John Green Effect' in YA publishing (You can read about that here, among other places.)

Why am I not doing those things? Well, I'm not reviewing The Fault in Our Stars because I haven't read it. And to be honest, I haven't read it yet simply because everyone else in the world has. I discovered John Green through Looking for Alaska, and when I did I felt like I should give his other, not-fault-in-our-stars books some attention. Because they're probably jealous of how everyone dotes on that other book.

I'm not commenting on John Green either as an individual or as a force in publishing because, frankly, I feel like enough has already been said about how awesome/dangerous/well-meaning/privileged/white/male he is. And furthermore, although I love writers (I am one!) and I understand that books come from writers, it is my fervent belief that books should be judged on the basis of their own merits. A good book should never suffer because it was written by an asshole. On the same token, a horrible book should never be lauded just because the guy who wrote it is super cool and everyone's best friend. 

So, without further ado, here is my review of Paper Towns:
(Naturally, SPOILER ALERT)

Paper Towns might be one of the best books I have ever read. (Is that a fangirlish enough start to this review?) The plot is so simple: childhood friends and longtime neighbors Quentin and Margo enjoy a night of vengeful revelry in the last month of their senior year of high school and then Margo disappears and Quentin devotes the remainder of his high school career to finding her. That's really it. But it's also so not it. Because the story is about so much more than that. It's about:
  • Margo's imagined relationship to her childhood memory of Quentin
  • Quentin's imagined relationship to his childhood memory of Margo
  • Margo and Quentin's actual relationship
  • Margo's fractured relationship to her parents
  • Margo's parents' idealized relationship to the daughter they wish they had
  • Margo's relationship with her hometown of Orlando
  • Quentin's relationships with his friends Ben and Radar
  • Quentin's relationship with his parents, who are both therapists
  • The image Quentin holds in his mind of Margo
  • The image Quentin holds in his mind of himself
  • The idea that how people imagine one another bears little resemblance to the way people actually are
  • And so much more!!
I could go on for days about the intricate and hugely meaningful ideas that form the foundation for the story behind Paper Towns. I'm convinced that it is the simplicity of the plot that allows room for the rich character development in this novel. Paper Towns is the kind of book that I believe would make a horrible movie. Because not a whole hell of a lot happens. After Margo and Quentin's all-night life-changing vandalism spree there's just not a ton of action. But please don't confuse that lack of action with tedium, because if you did you would be so wrong.

Paper Towns is witty. Early in the book I came across this line: 
Both my parents are therapists, which means that I am really goddamned well adjusted. 
And I knew I was in for a treat. 

Here's the set-up:
The protaganist, Quentin, is the only child of therapists. He's not exactly a social outcast, but he is the kind of non-band-geek who only hangs out with band geeks. He grew up next to Margo Roth Spiegelman in a sprawling Orlando suburb that was mostly indistinguishable from all the other sprawling Orlando suburbs. And, Margo, well...I should let John Green tell you about Margo. Because whatever lame summary I come up with couldn't do her justice.

...She was the only legend who lived next door to me. Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose six-syllable name was often spoken in its entirety with a kind of quiet reverence. Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose stories of epic adventures would blow through school like a summer storm: an old guy living in Hot Coffee, Mississippi, taught Margo how to play the guitar. Margo Roth Spiegelman, who spent three days traveling with the circus--they thought she had potential on the trapeze. Margo Roth Spiegelman, who drank a cup f herbal tea with The Mallionaires backstage after a concert in St. Louis while they drank whiskey. Margo Roth Spiegelman, who got into that concert by telling the bouncer that she was the bassist's girlfriend, and didn't they recognize her, and come on guys seriously, my name is Margo Roth Spiegelman and if you go back there and ask the bassist to take one look at me, he will tell you that I either am his girlfriend or he wishes I was, and then the bouncer did so, and then the bassist said "yeah that's my girlfriend let her in the show," and then later the bassist wanted to hook up with her and she rejected the bassist from The Mallionaires.

The stories, when they were shared, inevitably ended with, I mean, can you believe it? We often could not, but they always proved true. 

Quiet Quentin, practical Quentin, smart Quentin, grew up in awe of Margo Roth Spiegelman. And he loved her in a sort of hero-worshipping way. But Margo always traveled in cooler circles. That is, until the day she found out her boyfriend had been cheating on her. Then Margo Roth Spiegelman had to have revenge, and she needed Quentin to help her exact that revenge. As she told her confused friend: "I have to do eleven things tonight, and at least five of them involve a getaway man."

There I go quoting the book again. But that's the problem with books that are as amazing and quotable as Paper Towns. When you read them they fill you with such evangelical excitement that all you want to do is quote their lyrical lines to everyone you know so they, too, can be filled with the same excitement.

Margo and Quentin's epic Night of Eleven Probably-Illegal Tasks was a wild success. And of course, when Quentin went to school the next day he harbored unspoken hopes that his relationship with Margo was changed. Maybe now they'd be more than neighbors and sometime-friends. Maybe she would actually talk to him in public, maybe in front of the cool kids. Maybe she would even kiss him. But that wouldn't happen, because Margo was gone. It wasn't the first time she had disappeared. But it would be the last, because Margo Roth Spiegelman wasn't coming back, and in the space that was created by her absence, everyone and everything changed.

About halfway through their Night of Revenge, Margo Took Quentin to what she said was one of her favorite places in town: the Sun Trust bank building downtown. Quentin thought it a weird choice, but of course followed her all the way up to the conference room on the top floor, from which they had a view of all of Orlando through the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined one wall. Quentin called the view beautiful, but Margo scoffed:

"Here's what's not beautiful about it: from here, you can't see the rust or the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You see how fake it all is...It's a paper town. I mean look at it, Q: look at all those cul-de-sacs...all those houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail...I've lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters."

In the days following her disappearance, Quentin thought about this and other statements Margo made that night. They suggested a level of unhappiness within her that he would once have thought impossible. But now he was confronted with the truth of it and he took it upon himself to save her.

I'd like to take a break here, to share a few words not only about Margo Roth Spiegelman, but also Alaska from Looking for Alaska, and the eponymous Katherine from An Abundance of Katherines.

I won't lie. I have a full-on awkward teenage crush on ALL of the troubled heroines I have encountered in John Green novels. My crush started with Alaska Young, continued with the final Katherine in An Abundance of Katherines, and reached a climax when I was introduced to Margo Roth Spiegelman in Paper Towns. When I read John Green's selfish, reckless, devil-may-care heroines I become a goose-pimply, heart-fluttery, stammering teenager. I wrote a love letter to them. Read it here. 

So Margo disappeared, and partly because he couldn't imagine life without her, and partly because he didn't want to, and partly because of the sad-and-enigmatic things she had said during their night together, Quentin vowed to save her. And in so doing, Quentin grew beyond himself. He grew more into the person Margo had always imagined him to be. And in the end, he did find her, but he also found that she didn't need to be saved. Moreover, Quentin discovered that Margo Roth Spiegelman was both MORE and LESS than the image of her he had carried in his heart. 

At the end of Paper Towns, Quentin and Margo Roth Spiegelman say goodbye to each other and also to the paper images they had created of one another. And they prepared to go out into the Great Beyond that awaits after childhood's end.

I truly cherished this book, and I highly recommend it. Have you read it? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

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