“Paper Towns” by John Green

13 Oct


Oh, man, I was so excited to finally read John Green's "Paper Towns." For YA literature fans out there, you know John Green is the author of "Looking for Alaska" and "An Abundance of Katherines," two novels that were rightly praised for their winning combination of sharp humor and believable drama. I had heard there were some early mixed reviews on "Paper Towns," but I sort of covered my ears and closed my eyes to them, because John Green is awesome and can do no wrong. Except, well, maybe in this case. And, believe me, that's a tough thing for me to admit.

In "Paper Towns," our self-deprecating anti-hero is Quentin ("Q") Jacobsen, your typical nerdy, sorta sweet, sensitive, wicked smart, possibly even cute senior guy. We've all seen this character before in teen literature. Q has two clever, loyal, insanely funny best friends. There's the manic Ben, who relentlessly, rather grossly talks about pleasing the "honeybunnys" (note: actual honeybunnys avoid Ben like the plague), and Radar, the Omnictionary addict (think wikipedia) whose parents own an impressive collection of black Santas.

The novel here is divided into three parts. In the first section, Q and his next door neighbor, the enigmatic and popular Margo Roth Spiegelman, spend one school night committing a cool series of revenge pranks. Although Q and Margo were best friends as children, they've barely spoken in years, making Margo's selection of Q as her partner in crime quite intriguing. Then Margo disappears / runs away, which is apparently something she's prone to doing, and Q and his buds spend the second section of the novel piecing together some bread crumb-like clues she's left behind. Much of this involves Walt Whitman's epic poem "Song of Myself" and an abandoned strip mall that stands like a time capsule of the 1980s. In the final section, Q and the gang — with a surprising addition — take a frenzied, often hilarious road trip to find Margo before it's too late.

The elements that work here are those that work in all of John Green's novels, namely, the ample helpings of crackling wit and humor and the wonderful, believable friendships between the characters. The banter between Q and his pals sparkles with the kind of intelligent ribbing that real (well, real smart) friends regularly engage in. I don't see how someone could read the passage where the gang attacks a gas station convenience store like a race car pit crew and not burst out laughing. And that's just wonderful. Unfortunately, what isn't so great is the crushing weight of ideas that bog the story down, particularly at the end. I'm all for the discussion of philosophical ideas and looking at the world with introspection and depth, but, good lord, for page after page after page? Too many times, it felt like the novel ground to an abrupt, jarring halt to wedge in these discussions on the meaning of life.

I had other issues, especially with Margo. Although she was regularly described as this kind of once in a lifetime, spectacular creature, she never seemed all that special to me. Yes, she executed some clever pranks and had a nice record collection, but beyond that? Eh. I'd rather be shown how unique Margo is than have it force-fed to me through other characters' constant affirmations. Although, to be fair, this is the same problem I had with the title character in "Looking for Alaska," so maybe it's just me. It's possible. I also had some trouble with the shifts in tone. The many swings from lighthearted fun times to gravely serious moments struck me as rough and awkward. Several times, I felt like I was reading two different novels at once.

Listen, I think smart high school age teens, YA lit lovers, and librarians will probably find a lot to like here. And John Green certainly has a large fan base ready to devour his latest book, meaning that my lone criticism may not even stand for much. But I expected so much more, and, to be honest, I left this one feeling rather disappointed. See what you think. Hopefully, you'll like it more than I did.


Posted by on October 13, 2008 in Uncategorized


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4 responses to ““Paper Towns” by John Green

  1. aprilhenry

    October 13, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Haven’t read it – but I like that you were so specific in what worked for you and what didn’t.

    • mel1317

      October 23, 2008 at 6:22 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I’d be interested in knowing what you think after you read it. I’ve read a bunch of reviews on “Paper Towns” lately, and I see that I am definitely in the minority on disliking this one. Oh well … it’s not the first time that my opinion isn’t the popular one. 🙂

      Thanks again!

      • aprilhenry

        October 23, 2008 at 7:11 pm

        There’s a YA group called ADBOOKS that I just joined and it seems like a number of people there were ho-hum. And others loved it.

  2. mel1317

    October 29, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Re: Well…

    Thanks for posting. I was delighted to read your disagreement!

    See, that’s what I love about discussing books. What I thought was a draggy discussion of issues, you saw as compelling insight, and what struck me as jarring shifts in tone simply seemed to you like a better reflection of real life.

    So, yes, I can see your point, too. And, although it looks like we’ll disagree about this book, I can definitely agree with your larger statement about loving John Green. 🙂

    Thanks so much for posting such well-considered, intelligent opinions. Happy reading!


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