Posted on January 29, 2014 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Paper Towns by John Green
Here be spoilers.
John Green is fast becoming one of my favorite young adult authors. Not only does he have an intuitive understanding of the young adult mind (and perhaps just as valuable, young adult angst), but the two titles I've read so far have provided realistic portrayals of teens without straying into the melodrama of many YA books. My introduction to Greene was through Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I reviewed in 2011. He and co-author David Levithan did an admirable job of portraying gay youth who were as insecure as any normal teenager without straying into the stereotypical spiral of self-loathing and eventual destruction.
This is a review of Green's 2008 title, Paper Towns, which is set in Orlando, Florida. The story begins with a spontaneous act of revenge, carried out by the protagonist Quentin (everyone calls him "Q") Jacobsen and the girl who lives across the street, the poshly-named Margo Roth Spiegelman. Quentin and Margo have a long history together, aside from just being neighbors. When they were younger, they jointly discovered the body of a man who'd committed suicide in a local park. In a sense, this gruesome encounter was a catalyst for both characters. Margo grew into an adventurous daredevil who moves through elite high school circles like a tornado, simultaneously embracing life and taunting death. Quentin is more reserved, introspective, a stand-up kind of guy who eschews the drama Margo seems to crave. His life is less vibrant, but compared to Margo's it's also filled with love and friendship. Now both seniors in high school, Margo and Quentin are friendly but no longer friends despite the fascination they still have in each other.
So when Margo shows up at Quentin's window in the middle of the night and asks him to drive her around in an orgy of revenge against her cheating boyfriend and disloyal girlfriends, he's delighted to oblige. But the thrill is short-lived. By the following day, Margo's vanished and no one knows where she's gone. This is nothing new as the young woman has a long and storied history of running away and her parents are completely over it. They're certain – and undoubtedly they're right – that Margo's disappearance is just another "performance" from a highly-manipulative personality. But Quentin's worried that Margo may be doing more than just leaving her life in Orlando – maybe she's leaving life altogether. His thoughts invariably turn back to the suicide they found in the park years earlier.
Whatever her reasons for disappearing, Margo seems to want Quentin to find her and has left him clues to follow. These include underlined passages in a Walt Whitman poem, musical refrains and notes she's jammed into the hinges of his bedroom door. Although his friends and parents don't really understand Quentin's fascination with Margo, they do help him with his quest. This eventually leads him to exploring a series of "paper town" – unfinished and abandoned subdivisions which litter the Floridian landscape. Will he find Margo in one of these forgotten communities? And when he finds her, what exactly will he find?
To his credit, Green doesn't use the book's conclusion to pander to his youthful audience. There's no hyper-romanticized end for Margo and Quentin as is too often the case in lesser YA fiction. After all, Green just spent 200 pages showing how these characters are from completely different worlds, so it wouldn't make any sense for them to run off together, caught in the throes of young, unrealistic passion. Instead, Paper Towns is an honest portrayal not of unrequited love, but of obsession. We never lose sight of the fact that Margo is playing games with Quentin – and that he's eating it up. In fact, it may be that the only way these two people could ever be together is through a fantasy Margo's built and Quentin's embraced.