“When did we see each other face to face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade, but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”
-John Green, “Paper Towns”
Rating: 3 stars
Days to read: 3
It should be no surprise that one of the categories I checked off first was a YA novel (any good suggestions for ‘a book that takes place on an island’? I have a feeling this will be the last one I get to!). I loved A Fault in Our Stars in so many ways and was excited to explore the rest of John Green’s work. Teenage angst is such a universal and relatable theme but it tends to feel stale and overdone in most writers’ hands, and I felt like TFiOS captured so much without falling into many predictable character black holes that plague a lot of other YA work. In passing I’d seen trailers for the movie adaptation of Paper Towns, so I used that as a pseudo-endorsement that this might be another great story.
At the end of his senior year of high school, Quentin is taken on a wild, one night adventure with literally the girl next door, Margo Roth Spiegelman (the number of names you use for a person is correlated with your love for them, clearly), a girl with whom he has been infatuated with since childhood. There were many things I liked about Margo; she is a force to be reckoned with, she seems aware of the temporary nature of high school and its dynamics, and for the most part she rises above being motivated by the approval of her peers. Her function in the story, though, is to be a distant but dizzying mystery to Quentin (and thus, the reader), that of course in turn requires an epic obsession. After their one night adventure, Margo disappears and Quentin embarks on his own adventure to find her, sometimes enlisting his friends in various capacities and who are often nonplussed at Quentin’s devotion to solving the mystery of Margo’s disappearance.
In the end, when Quentin finds Margo through a series of both intended and unintended clues on Margo’s part, the result is anti-climatic. This is in many ways purposeful on Green’s part– Quentin has built up Margo and what might come after finding her, and he’s let down by reality. In that sense the ending is really quite fitting, but I felt frustrated by the pace that the adventure unfolded. At first when Quentin is going from clue to clue, I waited in suspense as he struggled to decipher the meaning of each clue and often went through several rounds of failed attempts before being able to continue. The final road trip felt frantic though, as if the plot just needed to be wrapped up and it was time to call it a day. Instead of building suspense I felt like I still had no idea where the plot was going, we were just going a lot quicker.
In a discussion with my little sister I brought up that one of my chief frustrations with the book is that I’ve become incredibly weary of the manic pixie dream girl. Female protagonists/main characters become relegated to some ethereal mystery status that is revered but results in extremely shallow character development. We allow ourselves to go no deeper than scratching the surface of a person, as long as that surface is really pretty and fun to think about. My sister argued that the point of this book is the deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl. Indeed, I did enjoy Green’s exploration of how the way we see each other and even ourselves is wrapped up in our ideas of each other almost more so than the actual person (for a beautiful exploration of this as it pertains to missing loved ones who have passed, read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis). It is not until these ideas are cracked that we truly can connect with one another; almost ironically it is sharing brokenness that forges bonds. In Green’s hands this topic was beautifully done and without boring platitudes, and for me these passages were the highlight of the book, especially the imagery with cracked vessels and internal “strings” that cross within ourselves and between each other.
Would I still read another John Green novel? In a heartbeat. There’s a lot to take away from this book even if it wasn’t my favorite. It’s hard not to stay endeared to a fellow nerd.