John Green is one of only three authors to have more than one book on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. This week, I’m tackling the first of them: Paper Towns. It 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.
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.”
Sound the alarm, guys: our narrator is definitely a Nice GuyTM.
His (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.”
I was just about to score one for John Green – I was pleasantly surprised, I honestly didn’t think he had it in him – but then it all went to shit. And by that, I mean that his selfish teenage arsehole characters went back to acting like selfish teenage arseholes. Quentin 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 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.”
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 “having 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 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