The longer I sit with my reactions to Paper Towns by John Green the more and more it grows on me. Normally I would have finished this book and had the review up within 24 hours, but life was not cooperating this weekend so instead its been nearly three days since I finished the book before I’ve sat down to examine my thoughts. They are many, and they are varied, which is why I think I’m sticking with a 3.5 rating rounded down to 3. Let’s discuss why:
Paper Towns is built around the last few months of senior year for Quentin and Margot. Q is your average kid from high school. He has his people (the band kids), he has his best friends (Radar and Ben), he has his weird parents (psychologists!), and he has the girl he pines for (Margot). What John Green excels at is taking characters like these and infusing them with the pathos of the young, without coming across as maudlin or whiny, or worst of all – fake. These characters, as a group, are perhaps Green’s best foray into a full cast of well-developed characters.
Plot wise, there were fits and starts. I hated the introduction. I put the book down for nearly a week after reading it. I don’t know that pulling the information that Q and Margot found a dead body together when they were very young is important as our first data point for these characters. We certainly don’t need several pages of Q explaining how this was the defining moment of what came after. At least not up front. What does come after is Margot going on a revenge campaign and then disappearing, first with Q and then without, we’re along for the ride of watching Q sort out who Margot is to him and their friends, and more importantly who Margot is to herself.
Empathy is the crucial piece of this novel. As we spend time with Q he is learning to empathize with his friends, his parents, and even the bully a few blocks over. He’s also learning that its incredibly difficult to truly know anyone, and if you don’t make the attempt, then you have nothing but an empty place holder where that person should be. The best part, the happiest reading was Margo and Q’s night of adventure. But the pacing of the book struggled after Margot took off and we’re left with Q as he struggles with these big questions.
Other things that Green did that I thought were good was using some heavy hitters of the artist world as big portions of the story, Whitman, I’m looking at you. I also appreciated greatly that the ending wasn’t afraid to be real and true to the characters’ intent. There was no 11th hour change of personality, just discovery and understanding.
Narfna spoke eloquently in her review of how books like Paper Towns are so important for the work they do in teaching us NOT to create Manic Pixie Dream Girls/Boys in our own lives. As much as Margot can be argued to fit into that category, it’s a superficial reading of the narrative, at best. In many ways Paper Towns has the same basic plot points of Green’s earlier works: a character missing from the narrative through line while being its catalyst (Looking for Alaska) and a road trip story (An Abundance of Katherines), both with a young, male, protagonist. And for that reason, and some stumbling in the beginning, I can’t quite convince myself today to rate this book a 4, but I might later. Reading this book also had me dropping my rating for The Fault in Our Stars down to a 4 from a 5, so I’m obviously up for changing ratings.