Somehow, I’ve learned well after the fact, I’ve managed to pick up a couple of audiobooks that are considered “teenage” books. I haven’t written a review yet about the other one (Among Others), but this one, Paper Towns, was pretty good.
If you’re a child of the 80s, you’ll fondly (or maybe not so much) remember the teen movies by John Hughes: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful. All of these movies revolved around high school and dealt with the various stereotypes and cliques in school and breaking outside those circles.
John Green’s Paper Towns reminds me of those movies. It’s a quick and entertaining read that captures the same teenage angst that those movies did even though the subject matter of a runaway teen may be a bit darker than those movies ever were.
The story opens by introducing us to two childhood friends: Quentin Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman. They live across the street from another in Orlando and spent a lot of time together. At nine, they go to the park and stumble across the corpse of a man who has committed suicide. We see how the discovery affects both characters: Quentin is freaked out; Margo is fascinated by it. She becomes something of a young detective and learns more about the person, which she then shares with “Q” later.
The story jumps ahead to their senior year of high school, just weeks away from prom and graduation. Quentin and Margo have had little to do with one another over the years. Quentin ends up with more of the nerdy band geek crowd, while Margo has become popular. She’s more than just popular by the “in” crowd. Everyone has heard of or encountered her, and Margo Roth Spiegelman has become almost a legendary persona.
One night Margo suddenly shows up at his window. She needs a partner-in-crime to assist her as she goes on a one-night spree of nasty pranks to get back at her so-called friends and her now ex-boyfriend, who Margo had just learned was cheating on her with one of her best friends.
Quentin hesitates, but he goes along anyway. The all-night adventure re-ignites their friendship as well as Quentin’s crush on Margo.
Exhausted, Quentin goes to school the next day and suffers through it, hoping that Margo will be there and hopeful that everything between them has changed. Margo doesn’t show up for school.
He eventually learns that Margo has run away. It’s not the first time that she’s done it, though. Margo always leaves clues to her family about where she has gone, and she always returns a few days later.
This time, however, Margo doesn’t come back. After a few days, her parents file a report, and Quentin has to face questions from both Margo’s parents and the police.
As the police look through her room, they pull down Margo’s window shade. Quentin discovers that Margo has put a Woodie Guthrie poster on the back of her shade, facing his window. Quentin believes this is a clue she has intentionally left for him to find.
This kicks off Quentin’s quest to find Margo. He follows a number of clues with his best friends, Ben and Radar, to the point where it becomes an obsession. Quentin even wonders at one point if Margo has committed suicide and intended Quentin to find her body, just like they found the body of the man when they were kids.
In his quest, Quentin realizes how little he really knows Margo. In fact, he learns that almost no one really knows her. Margo has created a persona, a “paper girl” that everyone sees, but she’s kept her true self concealed. While everyone else is focused on prom, finals and graduation, Quentin struggles to understand the “real” Margo, hoping that by understanding her, he’ll find her. The quest also forces Quentin to push himself well outside of his comfort zones: lying to his parents, skipping classes, etc.
Just before graduation, Quentin finally comes across a clue that he’s certain that will lead them to Margo, and that she’s alive. He skips graduation and makes a last second cross-country road trip with his best friends and one of Margo’s friends – who has joined the group in their search.
The story focuses on Quentin and Margo. While we learn about Quentin’s friends, Ben and Radar, and Lacey, one of Margo’s popular friends, they’re really not much more than stereotypical characters (Radar – the computer geek; Ben, the funny sidekick, and Lacey – the hot and otherwise unobtainable popular girl).
We never really learn enough about Margo to understand why she turned out the way she did, which to me weakened her character. As much as Margo complains about being a “paper-girl” living in a “paper-town” and the desire to escape where she can be “real.” the character has made every effort to keep everyone in her life at arm’s length. She seems to want someone to know the “real” her, but she prevents anyone from getting close.
Green does a good job of keeping the story pretty light-hearted, even when it seems like that Margo may be dead, or at least, gone for good. For most of the other characters and even the other kids at school, life quickly moves on.
The only major complaint I had about the story besides understanding a bit more about Margo would have been to cut a chunk out of the middle. There’s a part to the story where the main character spends a little too much time not seeing the next clue even though the author has pointed it out to the reader.
I would have also liked to read/heard an epilogue, where the author tells us (via Quentin) where everyone ended up 10 years later. It’s not a deal breaker though.
It’s still a very entertaining story as these high school seniors deal with their last weeks in school and how much things will change in just a few months. It’s about enjoying time with friends, but also understanding that those friends will be moving in different directions and that you have to let them go.
Paper Towns is probably the closest book I’ve read that captures that same spirit of teenage angst that John Hughes did so brilliantly in his movies.