Last year I read my first John Green book and… let’s say it didn’t go smoothly. It was The Fault in Our Stars, and I read it around the same time the movie came out. Between honest criticisms I had about the two main characters and personal issues I had with my experience overall, my initial impression of John Green’s work wasn’t exactly the most positive. I still ended up liking the book — in some weird, toxic, fucked up sort of way — but it left a really awkward taste in my mouth. I still wanted to read at least one other book by him, though. After all, it’d be a little unfair to form a strong opinion of John Green based on only one of his books.
Well it’s almost been a year since then, and the same friend that lent me The Fault in Our Stars lent me Paper Towns, this time wanting me to read the book before the movie came out (I still think I would have liked The Fault in Our Stars more if I hadn’t pictured Shailene Woodley and what’s-his-face as Hazel and Augustus the entire time). I read it, and although it still had its share of problems, I honestly feel like Paper Towns was a much, much better book than The Fault in Our Stars.
Paper Towns was about this teenager named Quentin who’s close to graduating high school. He’s kind of dorky and has some dorky friends, and has a crush/unhealthy infatuation with his (sort of) friend next door, Margo. I say “crush/unhealthy infatuation” because while he very much does have an unhealthy infatuation with her, I always got the impression she was just a crush before Margo took him out for a night of revenge and fun. He kind of borders on the line between wanting to be with her and realizing she’s out of his league.
One night, Margo asks Quentin to help her do a variety of tasks that she won’t tell him about until they’re about to do it. Quentin’s nervous and uncomfortable, because a lot of her tasks involve revenge pranks on people that have hurt her and breaking into places like Sea World in the middle of the night. But between liking her and gradually feeling the thrill of the events that night, he sticks with her the entire way. They have a great night, Margo expresses her feelings that she’ll really miss hanging out with Quentin, and they part ways for the night.
Margo goes missing the next day. She apparently runs away every now and then, and everyone at school is used to it. When she doesn’t show up again for a few days, though, Quentin worries something serious has happened. A detective shows up with Margo’s parents, and Quentin learns her parents are sick of her pulling crap like this and she’s not welcome back in their house anymore. He also learns Margo leaves clues to where she’s run away to, although no one has been able to figure out what they’re supposed to mean.
When Quentin sees a poster taped to the back of the shade in Margo’s room — the one that faces his bedroom — he’s convinced that Margo wants him to find her. With the help of his two friends Ben and Radar, as well as Margo’s friend Lacey, they find a series of clues in different locations and eventually track down where they think Margo is. Unfortunately, she’s in a paper town in New York, and they’re in Orlando, and by the time they’ve figured it out they have just less than a day to get there before she vanishes again. They skip graduation and book it to the place she’s staying at. While Ben, Radar, and Lacey give up on Margo after she acts like a brat when they find her, Quentin stays to gain some much needed closure. He and Margo talk for a long time about what she wants in life and how it’s not in Orlando and how she needs something more meaningful, as well as admitting to how she sort of had a thing for Quentin as well. They part ways on a solemn note, both realizing they can’t be with each other even though they want to, but still willing to make vague plans to at least see each other. I guess it’s up to the reader to decide what happens between the two of them in the future, if anything. Considering they’re both graduating high school, I feel that’s an honestly real ending, even if partly feels like a cop out.
Of course, one of the first things I instantly liked about Paper Towns was how I liked both main characters. Quentin is a little more reserved than the rest of his friends, and he’s kind of a dork, and he has a crush on this girl he used to play with when they were younger. That girl, Margo, is confident, takes action, keeps the school bullies in line, is intelligent, and does (at least to her peers) some crazy stuff like breaking into Sea World in the middle of the night just to see what it’s like. You’ve probably seen these characters before; it’s a classic story where Person A needs to grow and admires Person B, who teaches Person A to grow. During their overnight shenanigans, Margo pushes Quentin to be more confident and take more risks. When Margo disappears, Quentin takes her role at school when the bullies run wild again. He becomes something of an icon, just like Margo, and can’t help but admire her even more.
The rest of the characters are pretty standard, they fit their roles in the story and are enjoyable enough, but nothing more than that. The only one that really annoyed me was Ben. Sorry, but he was just a tad too juvenile for my taste, and dorky characters who act like frat guys aren’t exactly on my list of likable characters (unless they’re completely over-the-top, which unfortunately wasn’t the case).
Paper Towns is a YA book, though, so I don’t hold the lack of completely original characters too much against it. They all served their roles very well, and I’m glad they did. The writing still feels like a YA book, but again, I’m not going to completely hold that against the book. I do think it’s written much better than The Fault in Our Stars, however, and I was equally pleased with that. There’s a lot less pretentiousness, there are more back-and-forth conversations that feel natural, there are less paragraph-long monologues (and when they do show up I feel they do so at appropriate times), nothing overstays its welcome — the book in general feels a lot better in every area. I’m sorry if I keep comparing it to The Fault in Our Stars, but I feel like my appreciation for Paper Towns is at least partly influenced by how unimpressed I was with my first John Green book.
The only thing I wish was different is that I wanted more Margo in the story. The first third of the book, when Quentin and Margo drive around town together, was my favorite part. I love how they got to know each other a little better. I wanted that to keep going, maybe even take up the first half of the book. But I think part of Margo’s charm is that she’s this revered badass who we mostly hear about rather than see, so I guess my wish to have her around for a little longer is more of a personal preference rather than an unbiased note.
Speaking of personal preferences, I think I should admit that I had/have sort of a soft spot for stories like these and characters like Quentin and Margo. I used to really love to both read and write stories with similar concepts and maybe that’s another reason I enjoyed Paper Towns. I want to say upfront though, that I’ve met people like Margo in real life, and while characters like her are often fun, they can also be incredibly toxic. Actually, I think both Quentin and Margo show some toxic behaviors, and I wish the book explored that a little more. That being said, while I personally enjoyed Paper Towns, I can understand how it’s not a book everyone can enjoy, particularly people that don’t like or sympathize with the thinking and behavioral patterns of Quentin and Margo.
So overall, I really enjoyed the book. I wouldn’t say it breaks any kind of new grounds or is completely original in any sort of way, but it is a really fun read, especially for a YA book. The bad taste that The Fault in Our Stars left me with is gone, Paper Towns left me a much better impression of John Green, and I’m looking forward to the next book I pick up by him, whatever it may be. Hope everyone’s having a great week! 🙂
Info for my edition of Paper Towns:
- Published 2008 by Dutton Books
- Hardcover, 305 pages
- ISBN 978-0-525-47818-8