Review: Paper Towns, John Green

The beginning: In Paper Towns (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), a band kid called Quentin gets summoned in the night to join in an eleven-part revenge crusade by his neighbor, the gorgeous and popular Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose boyfriend (it turns out) has cheated on her with her best friend. The following day, Margo Roth Spiegelman disappears. But she has left clues behind as to her whereabouts, and Q becomes determined to track her down.

Is there a term for that phenomenon where someone points out a flaw or irritation in a piece of media you had previously enjoyed, and thereafter you can’t watch it without thinking of that flaw or irritation, and it kind of spoils it for you? You’re too annoyed with it now, or you can’t take it seriously, or you’re annoyed with it and can’t take it seriously? There should be a word for that because it is a very real phenomenon. Cf. the first five pages of Anansi Boys.

Well, sadly, that is what’s happening to me with Paper Towns. Whiskey Jenny (who is a big fan of John Green, and whose copy of Paper Towns I stealth-borrowed when she was out of town) mentioned a recent discussion she had about John Green in which her interlocutor argued that Alaska of Looking for Alaska was too much of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I do not remember Looking for Alaska all that well, but once the idea of John Green and Manic Pixie Dream Girls was introduced into my mind, it contaminated my reading of Paper Towns. I am several chapters in now, and I feel that Margo Roth Spiegelman lacks interiority.

Note from the future in case you are curious: I was very wrong about all of this.

The end (spoilers in this section only; highlight blank spaces to see them): Good news. She’s not dead, not that anybody thought she was. Q gets to kiss her at the end but she can never truly be his even though she likes him now. I flipped back a few pages to see if she at least gets to talk about what is happening inside her head, and the answer is that yes, she does. So okay, John Green is mightily beloved of bloggers, and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while I finish this book.

The whole: I was so unfair to John Green with the first part of this post, and I admit that now. I admit that the beginning of Paper Towns, while it did irritate me because of Margo’s apparent lack of interiority, also irritated me because Q’s parents are both therapists and it seemed like they were only therapists to amuse John Green by employing psychobabble in regular conversations. I admit this freely and openly.

It turns out that my criticizing Paper Towns for failing to give Margo any interiority was a bit like Publishers Weekly criticizing The Woman Upstairs for failing to make Nora a Nice Girl. Paper Towns is, in fact, about exactly the tendency of human people to disregard the interiority of other people because that is messy and complicated and it is easier to interact with idea-versions of people in your head. (This is the same theme I, but nobody else in the world, thought (500) Days of Summer was exploring.)

The five main characters of this book — Margo, Q, Margo’s friend Lacey, and Q’s friends Radar and Ben — all spend some time in the course of this book realizing that their ideas of each other are not equal to the actual persons of each other. All of them (well, not Radar so much, I guess) end up having something to say about the conflict that exists between the person that exists in their imagination and the person that stands before them. They have to realize, in other words, that each person in the world is the hero or heroine of his or her own story.

And that is a pretty great message for a YA book (or any book) to have.

24 thoughts on “Review: Paper Towns, John Green

  1. I didn’t **love** this one, but I found it pretty thought-provoking, and pretty layered, like with the Moby Dick stuff, and one that has stuck in my head a long time after (which I can’t say for many books). But I don’t think it is his best, and I would hate for you not to seek out yet more John Green because of this one!

      • No offence, but :”The Fault in Our Stars” is just a modernized tragic love story. Yes, I have read it and I found it interesting but it is clearly not one of his best. The Fault unlike most of his other famous works (e.x. Looking for alaska, Papertowns, Abundance of Katherines) All has a wicked sense of Humor and a deep sense of meaning. Fault has humor, yes but it does not have a deep meaning like the others. It is just a plain tragic love story. Just providing what I hope is helpful. Thank you

        • No offense taken! I can certainly see your point — tragic books tend to get way more attention and praise than untragic ones, and John Green is no exception.

  2. “Paper Towns is, in fact, about exactly the tendency of human people to disregard the interiority of other people because that is messy and complicated and it is easier to interact with idea-versions of people in your head.” – YES.

    Which is part of why this is, I think, my favorite of the John Green books I’ve read. Also, this is something I’ve been thinking about lately, not in those exact terms re: interiority, but, without being too specific, in terms of a) what I perceive as someone else’s desire to avoid dealing with me as a person as opposed to an abstraction and b) my own desire to make myself deal with this other person as a person as opposed to an abstraction because I think I will be better able to be kind and generous if I do that. And now I kinda feel like I should re-read Paper Towns.

    • Yep, me too. Especially when your interactions with someone are brief, it’s really easy to treat them like an abstract something rather than a complex person. There’s this line on the HBO show Girls where one of the characters says to his girlfriend, “Treat me like my life is real. My life is real,” and I found that very striking.

    • Yeah, An Abundance of Katherines is my least favorite of his so far. Try Paper Towns! It’s not as emotionally impactful maybe as Fault in our Stars, but it’s a good book!

  3. I’ve never read anything by John Green. Not sure this one would be for me, but you are so right about people disregarding another person’s “interiority.” It gets better as one gets older, but it’s always there. And I can’t help but ask…what about the first 5 pages of The Anansi Boys? Did I miss something (or should I not ask)? I don’t think I’ll ever read it again, although really enjoyed it, so you can tell me.

    • Oh, it’s not a spoiler! It’s just a thing that happens early on that was too long to quote in this post. It’s the thing where Fat Charlie’s father says that the prize-winning dog is sort of goofy-looking, and then that’s all anybody can see when they look at that dog.

  4. Yay, great review! (Also I love the new format!) And how interesting that you both picked up on the MPDG thing AND about how Paper Towns turns it inside out– someone just asked JG about that on his Tumblr, actually, and it makes me want to reread his books now because I don’t think I appreciated them properly the first time around. I mean, I LIKED them. But I don’t think I picked up on a lot of the stuff I was supposed to pick up?

    • You do? That’s good to hear! Nobody has said anything about it, and I was getting an eensy bit paranoid. :p

      Did you binge on all John Green’s books at once? I’ve read them spaced out over a period of years so I have had plenty of time to think about them.

      • I really, really do. :D It makes me all happy because it goes with your blog name and it’s so clever and different from what other people are doing.

        Re:binge-reading: I think I read most of them in a year, which…yeah, that’s a lot of JG to digest.

  5. I wouldn’t mind rereading all the JG books I’ve read. I do tend to think that the first book you’ve read will always be your favorite (a trend I’ve spotted but have never investigated thoroughly.) I liked this one almost as much as Looking for Alaska but maybe not so much as FioS. Aw, what does it matter. I love John Green. *crush*

    (GIN Jenny!?!)

    • It’s to distinguish me from my fellow podcaster, Whiskey Jenny. :p

      I have had mixed results of first books and favorites. This is my fourth John Green book (I think), Looking for Alaska being the first, and I think my favorite. The first Mary Renault book I ever read remains my favorite, but not the first Diana Wynne Jones; the first Neil Gaiman book I ever read is my favorite after several spells of falling in and out of love with it in various years; the second Salman Rushdie book I read is my favorite. Very mixed bag, I think!

  6. The thing about MPDGs is that they do exist, in life. I mean, I know it gets to be an irritating, overdone trope. But, for instance, when I read Looking for Alaska, what I thought about more than “Oh, sigh, another MPDG,” was “Oh, Alaska reminds me of….” So… well, I don’t know where I was going with this, exactly, Maybe just to say that the resemblance of a character to a MPDG can be forgiven if the character has more going on that mere manic pixieism. And also, Paper Towns sounds pretty good.

    • It is pretty good. I bet you would like it. MPDGs do exist but in real life everyone has interiority. It is inevitable. Legal Sister can navigate by compass to the sea all she wants, but she has other shit going on. I think the thing about MPDGs is that they lack inner selves and exist mainly as inspiration or whatever for the (dude) protagonist.

  7. Paper Towns does sound good; I love a subverted trope, me.

    After careful thought, I’m willing to believe that (500) Days of Summer was trying to explore that theme, but if so, I don’t think it did it very well. Because if it did it really well, more people in the world would have picked up on it, right? Whereas I found that film pretty, but deeply annoying, not an interesting exploration of how we are all real people inside and how it’s difficult to maintain any sense of other people’s reality when we are trying to figure out our own identity. (And can only do this through love! Is my own conclusion.)

    • Okay, yeah. You are right about (500) Days of Summer. I didn’t love it myself, and I haven’t rewatched it since the first time. I just didn’t feel that it deserved to be criticized for Zooey Deschanel being MPDGish–I thought the movie criticized Joseph Gordon-Levitt for perceiving her that way.

      • I liked that movie. Don’t recall thinking about any theme, actually. Nor did I hear that either actor was criticized. (I’m so out of it…)

  8. Is this a situation where there’s a word for it in every language but English? I know exactly what you mean and yes, there should be a word for it. Paper Towns was the book I’ve been reckoning would be my first Green, but somehow I’ve ended up with The Fault In Our Stars first instead. I think overall that’s probably the better situation, because it does sound a better book, but Paper Towns is still up there.

  9. I’ll just echo Heather and say “Yes” on that quoted part. It floored me and I wholeheartedly agree. Much like the paper towns of Margo and Q (not the technical paper town to prove trademark of maps). And I’m babbling.

    Love your new layout (if it’s really new, I mean I haven’t been bookbloghopping much, which is sad because I should.)

  10. I often get irritated with the parents at the beginning of a John Green novel. Luckily, I get over it by the end, because there’s a reason the parents are so one-dimensional–it’s often pretty much the same reason that the parents in turn-of-the-century children’s books were never around.

  11. I think this book is the best of John Greens. After accidently stumbling across it not even knowing who John Green was, I read it without the hype and expectation that comes along with all the other John Green books. I also think in order to fully appreciate and understand the underlying motifs that run through the book one has to look past the characters, as although the book would be completely pointless and useless without them, they are simply tools to help add to the book and not the main substance. Not really sure if that makes sense.

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