Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review: Paper Towns

I've been hearing endless buzz about John Green and his YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Thus, I was pleased to discover that my YA book club selected Green's Paper Towns for this month's selection and my other book club selected The Fault in Our Stars as one of our books for the year.  I feel grateful for the opportunity to read and discuss his books.

Having said that, I must say that after reading this first book by Green, Paper Towns, I find myself feeling more sad than anything else. But it isn't because it is necessarily a sad story. In fact, I'm guessing The Fault in Our Stars will be the truly sad story, because it is about a girl who is battling cancer. No, I'm sad because the portrayal of teens in this novel is probably fairly accurate to what many teens are like these days.  Indeed, that is probably what accounts for Green's vast popularity with young adult readers. That makes me profoundly sad.

The teens in this novel are self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, genital-obsessed, partiers. The main character, Quentin, repeatedly lies to his parents about his whereabouts, while his parents go on blindly believing him to be a well-balanced, good kid. Perhaps it made me sad because I worry that my own children will be this way and I will be the oblivious parent. Perhaps it made me sad because I want to think teens are better than this base description.  I don't know. All I know is that when I put the book down, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

As far as the story goes, it was engaging. Once you are pulled into the action, you keep reading and reading, hoping to discover how the story will end. It was well-written and the plotting was sound, the pacing perfect. The reader cannot help but be pulled along by the quest to discover the mystery that is Margo Roth Spiegelman (excellent name choice, I think). Plus, in the midst of the ride there is excitement and humor.

Quentin is a quiet, well-mannered nerdy kid until the night Margo Roth Spiegelman (his neighbor and long-time love-interest-from-afar) jumps into his bedroom window, dressed as a ninja, and leads him on a night of adventure and revenge.  It is a wild ride of wreaking havoc together. While the fun lasts, Quentin is on an all-time high. But the next day, Margo has disappeared. Not only that, she has left behind a trail of clues that seem earmarked for Quentin.

As Quentin interprets the clues, he begins to worry that Margo might actually do herself in. With his sometimes reluctant friends, he embarks on a journey to discover the true Margo Roth Spiegelman. But there's the rub. Maybe he cannot ever really know the true Margo Roth Spiegelman. Maybe we can never really know the other person, but only our perceived idea of who that person is. This is the heart of the message of this book. Not a bad message for teens to explore. Teens are often in the business of presenting a particular image of themselves, all the while regretting that they are not fully known.

I was eager to find out how the story ended. I enjoyed the book, for the most part. It just makes me sad that this seems to be the norm: glorified vandalism and crime sprees, keg parties, talk of sexual prowess and fixation on size of equipment, almost constant bad language, anticipation for losing one's virginity, and the typical teenage caste system. It makes me glad that I can be an adult reading YA fiction instead of having to tread those waters again myself. Still, if these are the kind of characters that make for award-winning YA literature, then my YA novels will never have a chance in the world.


Gracie said...

Just finished the book today, and I agree with your review. As a junior in high school, I can assure you not all teens are like the ones in Paper Towns (:
I loved the adventure and humor of the whole story, but I thought Margo was a bit annoying and dramatic. I love John Green's work though; he's a great writer.

Wendy said...

Gracie - Thank you so much for taking a moment to share your perspective. It was heartening to hear from a teen who can affirm that not all youth are as portrayed in this book. I agree, John Green is an outstanding writer. I did enjoy The Fault in Our Stars, and will probably pick up another Green book in the future.