Popular dream girl … ✓
Nerdy, relatively unpopular boy that loves her … ✓
Epic experience that involves road trips and changed lives … ✓ and ✓
The formula for a John Green novel is just that, and surprise surprise, “Paper Towns” has them all. It was only for a split second that I believed things to be any different after my third J.G. book.
This time around, we find ourselves in Orlando, Florida. Don’t let locations like Jefferson Park fool you; we’re talking about the fictional subdivision of Jefferson Park that used to be a naval base in/near Orlando, not the real Jefferson Park in northern Florida right by the Pensacola Airport (good job John, that won’t confuse anyone at all). Here, we find the quintessential “band geek” that is Quentin “Q” Jacobsen – a stereotypical protagonist for a Green novel in that he is unpopular, relatively ignored, has two sidekick friends that he socializes with, despises prom… and he loves the popular girl. Enter Margo Roth Spiegelman, the girl the next door (literally). And with quite the epic name, of course she’s got the quirks to go with it. Including and most importantly her proclivity for running away from home. After a night of reacquaintance between Q and Margo (she also has a habit of climbing through people’s windows, but keep your mind out of the gutter with this one), she once again disappears, but not without leaving her habitual clues behind for those people who are not fed up with her nonsense and are instead willing to use said clues to find her.
After finding and deciphering a series of said clues left behind by Margo (including a poster of Woody Guthrie on the back of her bedroom shades), a great chunk of “Paper Towns” is Quentin reading… and reading… and rereading the poem “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. As one of the clues Margo left behind with highlighted passages inside, there is chapter after chapter of Q continuously trying to figure out the hidden message(s) within the poem. Even when a clue leads to an abandoned mini-mall in a neighboring city, with a spray painted message assumingly from Margo inside, we still have persistent chapters of Q reading Whitman and blowing off his final months of school to find this girl. As a 20-something gal who has had her fair share of crushes over the years, I can understand parts of this situation, but many times I just think Q is neurotically obsessed over someone whom he put on a very high pedestal.
But, as is true with many novels, its own covert meanings are unveiled along the way. For example, a paper town by definition is a city utilized by map makers to serve as traps for identifying copyright infringements (it’s added to maps to identify people trying to copy said map; if that city/place shows up on any other map not by that particular cartographer, the map in question has been copied). These places appear on a map, but don’t actually exist in the real world. Through Margo’s definition, however, paper towns are more than just cartographic anomalies. They instead reflect on the falsity and superficiality of a city’s residents and the perception of perfect lives. Paper towns, to Margo, implies a lack of human dimension, originality, and purpose. While “Paper Towns” takes stabs at Orlando for being such a town in Margo’s eyes, the truth lies in that any place can be a paper town for someone.
The biggest shame of all about “Paper Towns” was that it took over 200 pages to become remotely interesting… And it’s only a 300-page book!
It was only when I stumbled upon the quote “It’s so hard to leave – until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world” that I knew Q had finally gotten past the tormenting chapters and we as readers were in store for something good, for some ACTION! And that wasn’t until part three of the book! This very quote from the novel was the first to really… spark something for me; my own departure from the comfortable and ordinary like that of Margo’s Orlando. As in both fictional and real life, I say in regards to this – better late than never.
Despite the numerous remarks about the quality of the books I’ve read over the years, I become a broken record in that I always find something inspiring within its pages despite all I’ve said. The same, naturally, is true for “Paper Towns.”
Sure, I kind of believe that John Green has a habit of recycling plot lines and characters and just puts them in new settings (please prove me wrong, John!), but that doesn’t mean I believe his novels to be entirely unworthy of my time. The writing style of John Green has become an “era” of fiction whether he fully intended it or not.
Over the last twenty years, readers have grown with the children of Hogwarts and, in the last decade, Panem. But as those stories have come to an end, John Green’s more realistic tales of teenagedom ring in a time of true, honest, relatable narratives – those that will remind us the true concepts of coming of age; where demons are metaphorical, not sentient, and the monsters are only in your head. There will always be a place in our hearts for people like Harry and Katniss, but we have all genuinely been where Q has been. And that makes all the difference.