Paper Towns – John Green

I picked up Paper Towns as a last minute whim on my way to the librarian’s desk last time I was in. My assumption was that I like John Green as a tweeter, and as an author (in the only one of his books that I’ve actually read) so this was probably good too.

I was right! (I usually am…)

Paper Towns is a beautifully written book. It’s sort of a coming-of-age story, sort of a mystery, and sort of a philosophy of life – it centres around ‘Q’, a young man about to finish high school, and his search for Margo, who kidnaps him to have a one-night-only wild adventure…. and promptly disappears. The mystery element is the subsequent hunt which Q leads – he and his friends try to look for clues Margo may have left, trying to work out where she went and why she might have left.

Q and his friends and family are the focus of the coming-of-age type stuff; as Q reaches adulthood, his relationships change and shift, and he learns about the differences between the image we hold in our heads of people we love, and the people they really are. This process is helped along by the hunt for Margo – the unusual situation causes Q to see his friends – and the girl he is searching for – in new ways and new lights.

The philosophical type stuff is harder to write about without spoilers; but Green is very clever, and there are layers upon layers of food for deep thought in here. Some examples (as spoiler-free as I can!):

  • The titular theme of paper towns – a quick Google will tell you what this phrase means, but I didn’t know before I read the book and I liked finding out what it means along with Q, so I won’t spoil it. However, beyond the actual meanings of the phrase, there’s an underlying meaning about life feeling two-dimensional, or fake. That feeling that society is so flimsily structured that any small real thing could rip through it in a second.
  • Questions of what holds life together (Hint: pay attention to the section headings!)
  • The above mentioned difference between who people are and the faces that they show; is there one? Who is the real version of a person? Is there a real version of a person? What makes it real?
  • Can romantic love overcome circumstances? Should it?

To be honest, there’s enough in here for one to write several essays! I’d be interested to see this book studied in a high school or college, actually – it strikes me as a very useful tool for teachers, as the themes can be teased out to meet a huge range of learning outcomes and/or subject areas. More importantly, though, it was an incredibly engaging reading experience!

It was just so interesting – I was interested in the characters (even Margo, who actually kind of annoyed me); I was interested in the things I learned about geography, poetry and music; I was interested in the mystery and the treasure-hunt…  all of it, chapter after chapter filled with really interesting things! Combine that with the fact that John Green writes really well (I do love a well-constructed sentence!) and we have ourselves a book that I will enjoy reading again and again. This is how clever a writer Green is: Margo Roth Speigelman, as a character, is kind of a manic pixie dream girl, in some ways – and I personally didn’t like her all that much – except she’s also not, because she’s aware of her own MPDG-ness! It’s very smart – like a subversion of the trope to prompt the reader to notice and think about the trope. And even though I didn’t really like her, I believed her; I disliked her as a real person, not as a two-dimensional idea of a person.

I have a feeling I’ll be able to read Paper Towns again and again, and get something new out of it each time. (I promise not to write too many essays about it, though.)

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