I think this is the first time I’m reviewed two books by the same author. I find this quite exciting. So, having read and enjoyed John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, I was quite curious to read Paper Towns. What I like about John Green is that his books are young adult fiction without being young adult stories. By which I mean that he writes YA books not by writing simpler stories or by dumbing down, but by writing adult (for want of a better word) stories that happen to be about teenagers. Both of his novels that I’ve read – The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns – are still in a sense coming of age stories, as so many YA books are, but they are about more than growing up – or at least they are about a very specific kind of growing up.
Paper Towns, published in 2008, follows high-school student Q. in his long infatuation with his next-door neighbour and childhood friend Margo. When Margo disappears, seemingly leaving clues behind her to where she has gone, Q. and his friends attempt to track her down. It’s a fascinating book, structured in three parts: ‘The String’, ‘The Grass’ and ‘The Vessel’, all named after a key metaphor. It’s a very effective structure, and nicely reflected how Q. shapes his life around Margo. It’s in fact the last part, ‘The Vessel’, taking pace over barely twenty-four hours, that is my favourite. I love the fast pace of it, although in fact I sped through the entire novel, reading it in about two hours on a train journey (bizarrely I also read The Fault in Our Stars on a train journey).
There’s something I really love about Green’s writing. I mentioned it in my last review but I’ll repeat it here anyway: he manages to write in a narrative style that is both poetic and yet doesn’t sound out of the realms of possibility for an ordinary person to say or think. It’s very effective, and very beautiful.
His characterisation is strong too, and I love how he devotes time to flesh out his minor characters. It isn’t just Q. and Margo that you get interested in. I hate Ben (in the kind of way you can only hate a well-developed character; he’s annoying in the very best of ways), and I love Radar, who along with Lacey is one of my favourite characters. I certainly didn’t expect to like Lacey so much, but ultimately I really just enjoy her and Q.’s friendship later on, and I like that she, like Margo, is partly there to prove that people (and characters) aren’t always quite what they seem. Q.’s parents have enough personality that it makes me a little bit sad every time he lies to them, even if I remain a little unconvinced that parents could be that oblivious to their child’s actions.
This leads me onto another point. There are a few things in the novel that I just don’t quite credit. The reaction of Margo’s parents to her disappearances is either so unusual or harsh that it requires more narrative space, or else it’s just a bit unbelievable. The cryptic clues Margo leaves behind her are very clever, and I really enjoy them as a narrative devices, but while reading I just wasn’t absolutely convinced that Q. would be able to solve the ones he does. Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic to the extent that it must be plausible in real life, but it but it does need to immerse you enough to suspend your belief for the course of the novel. For a few moments, especially relating to Margo’s parents, I just wasn’t quite convinced. Still, this is a minor point.
All the while I was reading Paper Towns, I was puzzling over how it was going to end. In all honestly I struggled to see how it could end satisfactorily. I was pleasantly surprised. The ending feels right. It isn’t rushed or disappointing or cheesy or unrealistic. It’s just – well, it’s the ending the book deserved. I shall leave you to read for yourself.
Behind the prom, school hierarchy and the high school graduation robes (all of which made me feel very English), Paper Towns really has a lot of depth. In fact I quite like the juxtaposition of Margo’s disappearance with the trivialities of high school relationships, parties, and what can only be described as banter. The friendship between Q., Ben and Radar is a joy to read. I like that the book is very fun (even if I did wince at almost every line of Ben’s dialogue), but at times dark as well. The very idea of paper towns – imaginary places cartographers draw onto maps to catch out rival cartographers cheating and copying their work – is fascinating. I didn’t find this novel as emotional as The Fault in Our Stars, but I did find it more powerful in another sense. It’s more thought-provoking. The novel brilliantly explores how people perceive each other, about how people latch onto the ideas of one another rather than trying to see the actual person – and how we can endeavour to get as close as possible to really seeing another individuals.
I strongly recommend this book. It’s a good novel, and a truly enjoyable one. I look forward to reading more of John Green’s novels, and in the meantime (which I’m busy reading all those other books I’ve got to read…), I’ll just be excited for the film coming out later this year:
Greatest strength: I suppose the thought behind the book, the concepts it was based on and explored.
Greatest weakness: There were a few moments where, as much as I loved the novel, I didn’t quite believe it. I wasn’t always convinced.
Let’s finish on a quote: That’s always seemed so ridiculous to me, that people would want to be around someone because they’re pretty. It’s like picking your breakfast cereals based on color instead of taste.
Next week: I think I’ll be reviewing The Best British Short Stories 2014, edited and compiled by Nicholas Royle