The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

My Crooked Neighbour (Review: Paper Towns by John Green)

Paper Towns
John Green
Bloomsbury 2010

When Margo Roth Spiegelman beckons Quentin Jacobsen in the middle of the night—dressed like a ninja and plotting an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows her. Margo’s always planned extravagantly, and, until now, she’s always planned solo. After a lifetime of loving Margo from afar, things are finally looking up for Q . . . until day breaks and she has vanished. Always an enigma, Margo has now become a mystery. But there are clues. And they’re for Q.  (Blurb courtesy of Goodreads)

I read this book weeks ago and felt entirely ambivalent about it. I had read, and adored, John Green's glorious Looking For Alaska and basically felt that this was just a re-tread of the same story. In a fit of pique I shelved it, yet Paper Towns and its cast of characters remained stubbornly in my mind, leaving me with the feeling that I had perhaps missed something on reading it. Finally, with much huffing, puffing and general disgruntled muttering, I pulled it back off the shelf and started over. Turns out I was missing something, and that something was that John Green is an absolute genius.

Much like Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns revolves around a guy (in this case, Q) who is fascinated by a rather eccentric, free-spirited girl (in this case Margo, his next door neighbour). Told with Green's trademark humour and laid-back style, their initial rampage through the suburbs is extremely enjoyable to read. It quickly becomes clear that although Q and Margo were friends as children, he hasn't spent much time with her since. Therefore, when she disappears the next morning his mission becomes to not only find out where Margo has gone (helped by the rather cryptic clues she has left behind), but also who Margo actually is.

So who is Margo Roth Spiegelman? My initial response to this would most certainly have been “who cares?”. Her disappearance reeked of selfishness and I found it very hard to care where she had gone or what had happened to her. Her character is not dissimilar to Alaska in Looking For Alaska, but whereas Alaska had some serious issues in her past that explained her erratic behaviour, Margo seemed to come from a pretty comfortable home. On a couple of occasions her parents are portrayed as utterly indifferent to their daughter, but I got the impression that they had just been entirely worn down by her attention seeking behaviour. Protagonist Q, however, is completely wrapped up in the enigma that he sees as Margo. It is impossible not to like him and I was genuinely moved by his desperation to find her. The supporting cast of characters are equally likeable, with Q's friends Ben and Radar providing some much needed light relief during his increasingly obsessive search. The back drop of their senior prom leads to some particularly hilarious dialogue. However, as much as I liked all the main characters, the elusive Margo and the similarities to Looking For Alaska continued to hinder my enjoyment. Until I re-read it...

On returning to the story, I saw what I had completely missed the first time round. While Green does return to the themes of identity and friendship that he touched on in Looking For Alaska (and with pretty similar characters), he takes them much further in Paper Towns. At first I found his repeated use of Walt Whitman's Song Of Myself rather laboured, but in retrospect it fits the story perfectly. Green expertly examines not only who we truly are but who we become through the eyes of others and how that in turn affects our self-identity.

As Q and his friends search for Margo, it slowly becomes apparent that each of them are searching for a completely different girl – because they can only see her through the lens of their own lives, knowledge, prejudice and love. I may not have liked Margo, but that is exactly the point – she is barely present during the book yet it is impossible not to have an opinion of her, ensuring that the reader become just as guilty of prescribing her an identity as Q and his friends. See what he did there?? It's genius! John Green is a writer who never underestimates the intelligence of his readership nor feels the need to provide them with neat endings and answered questions. Read Looking For Alaska and then read Paper Towns – then go away, have a think and read them again. On conclusion ponder this: Who is Margo Roth Spiegelman? And then you decide.


Unknown said…
I keep thinking that I need to read this. I have a copy but I never seem to be in the mood to pick it up. I have to say anyone who reads a book twice deserves a gold star. Especially when they do it because they think they might have missed something. I know when I finally read this it will hold something mesmerising between its pages. Great review!
Lauren said…
This is really interesting. I picked up a copy of Paper Towns this weekend, but ended up reading something else first. I'm now prepared maybe not to love it as instantly as I did Looking For Alaska, but to persevere. I tend to be big on first impressions so that is very good to know. It sounds a little more subtle than Looking For Alaska. Nice review.
Haven't read any of his books yet, but I think I'd love to try both of these novels. I'd probably start with Looking for Alaska before reading this one though! Love discovering authors I haven't heard of before!
I'm glad you picked it up again, I think John Green is fabulous.
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