Paper Towns debuted at #5 on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2008, it won the Edgar Award in 2009 for Best Young Adult Novel, and just about every YA-reader I know has a major stiffy for Green. So, I figured it was worth a look, even though YA isn’t usually my ‘jam’.
Paper Towns is your standard coming-of-age story. There’s a prologue positioning the two central characters as childhood friends. The nerdy, underappreciated boy-next-door (Quentin “Q” Jacobsen) “loves” Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar for years. She is (surprise, surprise) beautiful, mysterious, and edgy.
Margo goes missing, and Quentin goes looking for her, following her trail of clues. You have to suspend your disbelief for a minute here. I mean, I’ve never met a teenager with enough foresight to leave complex metaphorical breadcrumbs when they run away, and, indeed, why would they? The whole point of running away is, y’know, to not get caught. Still, that’s what Green chose for a plot, and I’m hardly in a position to argue with him.
There were some surprisingly clever and funny bits. I laughed out loud at the story of local figure Dr Jefferson Jefferson, who is actually not a doctor of any kind – he’s just a powerful, wealthy man who petitioned the courts to change his first name to “Dr”. That’s funny, right?! So I keep reading along, chuckling away… until we hit the first speed-bump of self-indulgent teenage wankery. Quentin opines:
“It struck me as somewhat unfair that an asshole like Jason Worthington would get to have sex with both Margo and Becca, when perfectly likeable individuals such as myself don’t get to have sex with either of them – or anyone else for that matter.”Paper Towns
Red flag, readers: our narrator is definitely a Nice GuyTM.
Q’s (brief) moment of redemption doesn’t come until about two-thirds of the way through the novel (by which point I’d already written him off). He realises that Margo isn’t just a vessel for all of his dreams and desires – she’s an actual person, would you believe it? And he’s not subtle about it, either. He really thwacks you over the head with this life-changing realisation.
“Margo was not a miracle. She was not adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”Paper Towns
It was a lovely moment (I guess), but then the selfish teenage arsehole characters went back to acting like selfish teenage arseholes. Q skips his high-school graduation (and somehow convinces his friends to do the same), despite the fact that he is an only child and his parents are so excited and proud of him that they bought him a car. He uses that very car to drive across the country chasing after the girl, risking life and limb, with nary a thought to his heartbroken parents… only to find that she’s absolutely fine and, well, that’s kind of the end.
It’s not all terrible, though. I wasn’t a huge fan of the characters or the plot, but the “paper towns” trivia was pretty fun and it made a nice little backdrop for the story. If you’re wondering: the idea of a “paper town” is actually an old cartography trick. Basically, if you’re designing a map (back in the days before Google had Street View), you’d sneakily add in an extra fake town in a random spot. It was an early form of copyright protection. If a cartographer saw their secret fake “paper town” on another map, they could be fairly certain that the designer had copied their design without permission. Clever, eh? Green confirms in his author note that the paper town he references in the book, Agloe, is actually real:
“Agloe began as a paper town, created to protect against copyright infringement. But then people with these old Esso maps kept looking for it, and so someone built a store, making Agloe real.”John Green
But aside from the fun trivia (and the lols in the beginning), I didn’t find all that much to love about Paper Towns. I think Green tried to play with “dark” themes too much. He was a bit heavy handed with the death stuff (that’s him “having his cake”), but then he wraps it up very neatly in an alarmingly benign ending (and that’s him “eating it too”). The monologuing in the closing chapters was extremely tedious; it felt like very lazy storytelling. I had to keep reminding myself that I’m a bit older than the target market; maybe today’s young adults like having everything teased out in dialogue, to feel like the story has a resolution?
Bonus fun fact: Paper Towns was apparently, like all good books, banned from a U.S. school in 2014 because a local parent “disapproved of the book’s sexual content”. A few high-school boys occasionally whined about being virgins, which is enough to make anyone clutch their pearls, I’m sure. The National Coalition Against Censorship had it reinstated shortly thereafter.
My tl;dr summary of Paper Towns would be this: two kids living in no-one-gives-a-fucksville get their kicks running around doing dumb shit, until the mysterious unattainable girl runs away and the boy next door (who “loves” her) chases her across the country. Paper Towns is great for younger teenagers, but will probably grate the nerves of anyone who has already finished high-school.
My adventures with John Green best-sellers doesn’t end here. Check out my full review of The Fault In Our Stars.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Paper Towns:
- “Purchased for my adult son who is a
Librarian to give to his 13 year old son.” – granny70
- “This book is complete trash. I would rather read a book about a boy peeling an orange. The characters were flat and the book was just boring in general. Q was a nerdy teen and Margo was a spoiled brat, who cares. This book was a waste of time I could have spent reading The Hunger Games.” – Isabela Underdahl
- “WOW THANKS JON GREAN U MADE ME CRY IN DIS U HOE GO SUCK A PAPER TOWN” – Xing Lee
September 12, 2018 at 4:02 PM
Yes, not my favourite John Green, I far preferred Looking for Alaska and The
Fault in Our Stars. I didn’t mind it, but Margo shit me to tears more than the boys. Some funny moments along the way. John Green does humour well.
September 13, 2018 at 9:49 AM
You nailed it, Theresa – I guess Margo felt too unbelievable to really drive me up the wall, the ways that the boys did, but she’s certainly infuriating. This book makes me feel like an old lady, shaking my walking stick at the kids and yelling at them to get off my lawn 😂 But there were indeed a few laughs, for which I was very grateful!
September 17, 2018 at 2:27 AM
I kinda love those Amazon reviews. Go suck a paper town. GAGAHAHAHA!!
What I do love about Paper Towns is that I live in FL, and there are 200% paper towns. Everything he mentions about the paper people and gated communities (shallowness, bubbles, blahness, etc) is extremely spot on. I pass those massive complexes and think of Green.
I did find Margo to be a selfish, self indulgent little twat. I enjoyed the movie a bit more. I also had to write a comparison paper of the two for my MLIS YA Lit class. Ugh!!
I am a John Green fan, and loved The Fault in Our Stars way before it became so popular. I listened to the title on my way to work, and maybe it was just the way the title was read, but I feel deep into its trance. I felt like I was in that circle sharing my woes. I loved that the author was a total prick too.
I despised An Abundance of Catherines, and I found Looking For Alaska to be similar to Paper Towns. I do appreciate their darker themes, and John Green can write. He’s better than Nicolas Sparks–which is my adult equiv to fluff.
Have you read the latest Turtles All The Way Down?
Overall, I think Green at least touches upon a new norm for teenagers that is angsty and self indulgent. It’s annoying and boring but also relevant.
Love your posts!
Love, Christine The Uncorked Librarian
September 17, 2018 at 11:31 AM
ZOMG when I read that review I laughed so hard I cried – I still snort involuntarily when I see it now 😂
I’ve not yet read Turtles All The Way Down (though I see it *everywhere* on bookstagram!) – I just recently finished The Fault In Our Stars, the review for that one is coming soon 😉 I can’t quite figure out how I feel about John Green on the whole; as a reader, I guess I could take him or leave him. With both Paper Towns and The Fault In Our Stars, there were some elements I enjoyed, and some that drove me up the wall – but that seems quite reasonable/understandable because I’m not the target market, so he gets a lot of lee-way from me in that regard. And really, ANY author that gets young people excited about reading and books is a success, a superhuman, as far as I’m concerned. Green is a juggernaut, and I really appreciate the work he puts in to engage with his audience. 🙂
Love your posts too Christine, and your lovely comments here <3 Thank you!
September 21, 2018 at 5:03 AM
Have you ever watched his YouTube videos with his brother? That might give you some new insight too!
September 22, 2018 at 7:53 AM
I haven’t, actually – that might be a good idea before the next one! Cheers! 😉
September 19, 2018 at 11:01 PM
could have spent the time reading hunger games? Oh lordy
well I guess if that’s the target audience…
Anyway another one deftly avoided by me, feeling pretty smug at this stage
September 20, 2018 at 9:53 AM
Hahahaha I’m sure I’ll come across one at some point or another that piques your interest, Phil 😉