High Schoolers In Bloom – Paper Towns by John Green

I’ve spent a lot of time building to this review.  Not anywhere in the blog, nor any place personal or professional.  But I’ve known I was going to read this book and I’ve known I was going to have a lot to say about.

I remember reading the publisher’s description more than a year ago because one of my co-workers is absolutely in love with John Green’s books.  And now I completely understand why.

By the way… light spoilers follow in the text, so feel free to skip it and know this: you should read this book.  If you like funny, touching, intelligent novels… you’ll like this.

But James, I don’t read Teen books!

Fuck you.  This ain’t Twilight.  This is fantastic literature with engaging characters, believable (if a bit precocious) dialogue, and a story that will keep you reading all the way through the night.  Just do it.

Paper Towns
John Green
305 Pages
Dutton Juvenile
October 16, 2008

This book.  Yes, yes, yes.  I started reading it yesterday evening and finished pretty much all but the final chapter (yes, I’m a glutton for subconscious punishment and had to sleep before I could finish) and… wow.  The ending was even satisfying.  The ending is hardly ever satisfying, especially when reading a novel intended for teenagers.

Where to begin?  This book is funny.  If all John Green books are this funny, I want to buy them all and place them under my pillow at night so I can be even a fraction as humorous.  Seriously though… the humor only accounts for a fraction of the novel, but given the way the book jarringly goes between suspense, dread, and general high school… high-schooliness… you need it.

OK, the story… Quentin and Margo have lived next door to each other almost all their lives.  As childhood friends, they found a dead body (spoiler alert: this does not have the same effect that it did on those kids in Stand By Me) and they just… float apart.

Smash cut.  Almost ten years later, Quentin is about to graduate from high school.  He’s hanging out with his two best friends (Ben and Radar… awesome dudes) and we catch him looking longingly at Margo… the girl next door.  Insert audience sighing here.  [random aside… I love that Green describes Margo as being soft and curvaceous.  Realistic body images FTW!]

Anyway… that night Margo approaches Quentin’s window and tells him she needs a wheel-man.  After some hemming and hawing, Quentin agrees and they embark on a crazy, passionate adventure full of breaking, entering (separate, not together), chaos, mayhem, and maddening fun.  Quentin is full of hope that they’ll reignite their friendship and then…

She’s gone.  Where to?  Ask the dust on the road…  Quentin’s hopes are smashed and he starts on a mad odyssey to find out where she’s gone.  From there… well, I don’t want to engage in too many spoilers.

The book will routinely tear your heart out of your chest.  Is Margo dead?  Is she just avoiding Quentin?  Torturing the poor schmuck?  Will she show up randomly at prom?  Graduation?  Ever?

So what’s the best part of the book, you ask?  Let’s start with the characters.  Quentin is lovable.  A bit naive, a bit of a douche in re: his friends, but endearing.  Also, you root for him through all this crap because he comes across as an incredibly genuine person.  And there may be parts of him I recognize from my own not-so-wayward youth… maybe! Mini-rebellions against an uncaring status-quo, tourist town annoyances, and unrequited love.  Ah, to never have to be a teenager again.

Ben and Radar are excellent supporting characters.   They’re supportive of a lot of Quentin’s insane plots to find Margo, but not above knocking him down a peg or two when he needs to recognize that he’s being an idiot (or busting his balls when he starts taking things too seriously) .  In other words, good friends.

And Margo.  Oh, I think I fell in love.  Not the creepy, why’s-that-guy-hanging-out-in-the-high-school-parking-lot-every-day-even-though-he-clearly-doesn’t-have-a-child-at-this-school love.  But her character, though mostly absent from the novel, is intelligent, enigmatic, and an absolute blast.

The novel also has great turns of phrase, hilarious bits of dialogue (the right simile or metaphor can make a funny scene a pee-your-pants funny scene… remember that).

Beyond the writing, the humor, and the characters, though, my favorite part of the book was how often I misjudged it.  In the beginning, I assumed I had another Virgin Suicides on my hands.  Quentin was idealizing Margo and, as a result, would never know what she was really like.  There’d be a dead body and 150 pages of characters coming to terms with the why without ever understanding the character.

Hell… the pieces were all there.  Bad home life with overbearing parents…  A mysterious disappearance… lots of weird clues (and a huge-ass record collection), but Green surprised me by allowing the characters to make reasonable guesses and intuit the truth behind the whole thing (thank you Internet!).

After that… I was expecting some big, disappointing ending.  Quentin would work it out, but it would lead nowhere and he’d spend the rest of his life pining away for the one that got away.  Also depressing.  But John Green had plenty of fun, surprisingly plot points to go…

The story keeps building and we get a bit of a traditional high school story… Finals, prom, drunken debauchery, graduation, the road trip… but (once again) the characters really bring it all together.  As they chug along to their final destination, the book just makes you ooze empathy.  You want them to make it.  They have to make it.  If they don’t, what proof is there of a loving and righteous God (and no, the atheist in my doesn’t have a joke about that… but the Catholic in me does… take it away Father Donald Roemer!)

OK that was too soon, too much, and a bit of an obscure reference.  Apologies to all involved.

Please, please read this book.  My plan is to head to the library and punch crappy books out of kid’s hands and drop this into them instead.  And if they try to refuse, I’ll just shake my head sadly and tell them… I can’t believe that you forgot to be awesome…  Seriously, read this book.  Read it!

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