Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Paper Towns, by John Green

Nice Guy (tm) on a quest for Manic Pixie Dream Girl watches everyone but him get laid. High school as envisioned by Judd Apatow.

Paper Towns

Dutton Juvenile, 2008, 305 pages

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life - dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge - he follows.

After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues - and they're for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees of the girl he thought he knew.

Printz medalist John Green returns with the brilliant wit and searing emotional honesty that have inspired a new generation of readers.

I can't help being snarky about YA books, they're just so... juvenile. But Paper Towns is actually a pretty good book, well-written with an honest and sympathetic understanding of teenagers. When I was in the age range this book is written for, I probably would have enjoyed John Green a lot, especially as this book hits all the usual high notes for the bookish teen likely to read John Green novels: the dork gets laid, the Hot Girl is actually a nice person, bullies get their come-uppance, and nerds shall inherit the earth.

Most of the characters are very much walk-on roles from a high school movie, with little quirks and complexities to make them maybe 10 degrees off the stereotype, but still eminently recognizable.

Quentin, the first person narrator, is kind of a nerdy kid, not in the "loser" category at the very bottom of the high school hierarchy, but definitely swimming in the depths, gaping at all the much bigger fish floating in the sunlit shallows above. His neighbor and childhood best friend, Margo Roth Spiegelman (who is both a character and a MacGuffin, always referred to as "Margo! Roth! Spiegelman!") ascended to levels inaccessible to Quentin about the time she hit puberty. Since then, she has lived in a separate world from Quentin, and he can only admire her from a distance.

Paper Towns

I am not a fine and precious thing.

One night, Margo crawls through Quentin's bedroom window and drags him along on a quest for revenge against her cheating boyfriend, the girl he cheated with, her supposed best friend, and various other high school rivals of both Quentin and Margo. Quentin, after registering some initial objections, goes along with her because she's Margo! Roth! Spiegelman! Margo evidently needs him because he has the keys to his parents' minivan. Their campaign of revenge is mildly amusing but pretty juvenile, and it's here where we begin to realize (and Quentin begins to dimly sense) that Margo isn't some awesome teenage ninja goddess, just a screwed up, rather self-centered kid like everyone else.

The next day, Quentin has hopes that their adventure means he and Margo are pals again and maybe she'll hang with him at the Not-Cool Kids' Table. Instead, Margo has disappeared.

The rest of the book is the Quest to Find Margo Roth Spiegelman. "Q" is joined by a Breakfast Club of buddies. His best friend, Ben Starling, is your basic unsuccessful wannabe-Love Machine high school perv whose mind runs along a single rail. He refers to girls as "Honey-bunnies," thinking it's cool and retro, and is still living down an episode in middle school that got him nicknamed "Bloody Ben." Q's other buddy, Marcus "Radar" Lincoln (named after the M*A*S*H character even though he's black and no longer wears glasses and doesn't look like Radar at all) is an obsessive Wikipedia"Omnipedia" editor whose blackness is a source of unthreatening suburban humor and otherwise fulfills the book's quota for non-white characters. (Likewise, Q at one point reflects sagely on gay jokes which are stupid because everyone knows there's nothing wrong with being gay but - high school boys! Therefore, gay jokes.) Margo's "best friend" is the Hot Girl, Lacy Pemberton, who turns out to be pretty nice after all and joins Quentin, Ben, and Marcus on their quest to find Margo.

Teachers are largely absent as characters. Quentin's parents are both psychotherapists and play the role of Supportive and Basically Cool if Slightly Clueless Parents who conveniently stay out of Quentin's life. Margo's parents are the Bad Parents who make Margo's running away supposedly understandable, though we never know just why. Margo's mother is shrill and bitchy and describes Margo as a bad influence on the family, but one gets the sense that she's one of those parents who thinks teenagers acting like teenagers are of the devil. There's a bored cop, and beyond that, adults play no significant role in the story.

Paper Towns, therefore, is a coming-of-age story for and about teenagers, using humor to reassure all the angst-ridden little hormone-monsters that life will turn out all right. Everyone grows up a little, though Quentin mostly watches everyone else grow up; Ben realizes that Lacey, and by extension, girls in general, are actual human beings, Marcus realizes that faffing around on WikipediaOmnipedia is his way of avoiding life, and Quentin realizes that Margo is kind of a bitch. Okay, that's not fair - the ending, in which Q and his friends track down the clues Margo has left, is actually kind of touching and probably the most real part of the book:

The fundamental mistake I had always made — and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make — was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.

But I really wanted to slap Margo. A lot.

Verdict: Good Young Adult reading for young adults. Still entertaining for crabby curmudgeons like me who can kind of remember being like Quentin, but if you find teenagers annoying, these teenagers will annoy you. They are fairly superficial caricatures defined largely by their quirks. I see why John Green is popular: his voice is appropriate for the kind of entertainment teens like, and his writing is much more sophisticated and true to the anxiety-ridden state of adolescence, afflicted with both eye-rolling juvenilia and the beginnings of adult problems, than more romance-focused YA books. If you like John Hughes, Diablo Cody, and Judd Apatow movies, this book is aimed at you.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, young adult

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