Book Reviews · Parenting teens · What We're Reading

Paper Towns by John Green

As children, Quentin and his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman were best buddies. But as often happens, by the time they reach high school they are in different cliques. The beautiful Margo is popular and mysterious. Quentin is just counting the days until graduation. So, when Margo shows up at Quentin’s bedroom window late one night and asks him to join her on a secret mission, Quentin is more than a little surprised. And even though he has been in love with Margo since they were nine, he hesitates – Quentin has never really been the sneaking out type. But Margo is persuasive, using both emotional manipulation and the promise of adventure to lure Quentin out for what she promises will be the night of his life.

What ensues is a night of revenge, trespassing, and petty crime. And then she’s gone. Margo doesn’t come back to school and she never goes back home. When it becomes obvious to Quentin that she isn’t coming back, he makes it his personal mission to find her, believing she has left clues to help him. Trying to decipher her clues and locate Margo, Quentin enlists the help of his friends and hers and in the process turns the social order of their senior class upside down – and with only a few weeks until graduation.

This is the story about a young man in search of his dream girl – not some far off ideal but an actual girls who is missing.  His search is a literal search but it is also symbolic.  Through it, Quentin discovers who Margot really is.  And she’s not the girl he always imagined her to be.

John Green’s characters in this novel, like Hazel and Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars, are cool, edgy, slightly odd, witty, and, for the most part, extremely likable. They are, however, not really guided by any sort of moral compass (unless you count the poetry of Walt Whitman). In fact, I think Margot Roth Spielman is actually be suffering from a borderline personality disorder of some sort.

Paper Town’s is funny and intelligent. So in that regard it is a much better novel than a lot of the YA novels out there. Unfortunately, it lacks characters who grow into better people, which is the kind of thing a lot of parents hope for in the books their kids are reading.  On the other hand, maybe that’s an over simplification of good literature.  Maybe it makes it too easy for us and for them.  A good book makes kids (and adults) think.  Paper Towns certainly has that potential.  The concern is that without guidance, a lot of kids will just get caught up in the story – the drama, the mystery, the humor, the utter coolness of it all.  It’s a great story, but it is a story centered around the life of a very disturbed young lady and the friends both resent and admire her.

In the end, it is Margot’s fate and Quentin’s acceptance of who she is that bother me.  I want more for her (like some psychiatric help).  And I want Quentin to admire her less, to see her for who she really is and to pity her the way I did.  Maybe that’s too much to ask of an 18 year old.  But when my daughter read this, it was a discussion that I knew we had to have. I didn’t want Margot to come off as a cool rebel or a beautiful mystery.  For readers who can find a deeper meaning in Paper Towns, who can see Margot’s brokenness and utter lostness, then I think this novel has something to offer.

VIOLENCE

No. But there is vandalism.

LANGUAGE

Yes. Again, these are teenagers with no moral compass.

SEXUAL CONTENT

There is a lot of talk of characters who have had or are having sex. And there’s a seen where Quentin peeks in on a teenage couple having sex, but there is nothing graphic. Also there is quite a bit of drinking.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

None

If your daughter or son does read this novel, here are some ideas to discuss.

  • What does Quentin really feel for Margo? Love? Fascination? Admiration?
  • How does her parents’ lack of concern for her contribute Margo’s behavior? Is she a product of her upbringing?
  • Does this justify her choices?
  • Does the fact that Margo leaves her little sister behind make her leaving worse? Should she be responsible for her sister?
  • What about Margot’s need for revenge? What does this say about her?
  • Which characters, if any, see Margot for who she really is?
  • In the end, what do you think of Margot? Is she eccentric?  A free spirit?  Mentally ill?
  • Do any of the characters change?  How?  For the better or worse?
  • Why do you think this novel is so popular?
  • Is there a moral or message in this story?  What do you think John Green is saying out adolescence?  Popularity?  Friendship?  Image? What do you take away from this novel?
  • Would you recommend this book to your friends?  Why or why not?

QUOTES FROM THE NOVEL

“…maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one.”

“… for so long I hadn’t really seen Margot.  I had seen her screaming and thought she was laughing…”

“That was typical of my parents: in their minds no one was just an asshole.  There was always something wrong with people other than just sucking: they had socialization disorders, or borderline personality syndrome, or whatever.”

“That’s always seemed so ridiculous to me, that people want to be around someone because they’re pretty. It’s like picking your breakfeast cereals based on color instead of taste.”

“I’m not saying that everything is survivable. Just that everything except the last thing is.”

“Did you know that for pretty much the entire history of the human species, the average life span was less than thirty years? You could count on ten years or so of real adulthood, right? There was no planning for retirement, There was no planning for a career. There was no planning. No time for plannning. No time for a future. But then the life spans started getting longer, and people started having more and more future. And now life has become the future. Every moment of your life is lived for the future–you go to high school so you can go to college so you can get a good job so you can get a nice house so you can afford to send your kids to college so they can get a good job so they can get a nice house so they can afford to send their kids to college.”

“When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”

“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightening, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the Queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.”

“Radar threw his books into his locker and shut it. Then the din of conversation around us quieted just a bit as he turned his eyes toward the heavens and shouted, “IT IS NOT MY FAULT THAT MY PARENTS OWN THE WORLD’S LARGEST COLLECTION OF BLACK SANTAS.”

“It’s not just the gossip and the parties and all that crap, but the whole allure of a life rightly lived – college and job and husband and babies and all that bullshit.”

image source: amazon.com
image source: amazon.com

2 thoughts on “Paper Towns by John Green

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