Book review: Paper Towns

Published: July 27, 2015


Last summer, as the curtains rose on the season’s blockbuster movies, one particular ‘chick flick’ gained much attention. John Green’s bespoke novel, The Fault in Our Stars, soared to the top, with fans thronging to cinemas to watch their beloved Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters fall in love on screen.

Prior to this, Green had already earned recognition on account of his popular YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers, and some other prize-winning novels for young adults. And while The Fault in Our Stars may have won hearts worldwide, it is in Paper Towns that one finds a true reflection of the ideas Green furnishes his fictional world with.

Released in 2009, the book has recently been converted into a full-length feature film starring supermodel Cara Delevingne and rising actor Nat Wolff and was released just last week. Through Paper Towns, Green takes on the idea of a manic pixie girl and decimates it. The story is narrated from the point of view of Quentin Jacobson, a Floridian teenager who is enlisted by the beautiful pixie dream-girl Margo Roth Spiegelman to carry out a whirlwind revenge scheme. Neighbours and former childhood buddies, Quentin and Margo have drifted apart over the years —  just not apart enough for Quentin to overcome his feelings for her. By the time night falls on their adventurous soiree, he falls even more in love with Margo, only to wake up the next morning and find her missing.

The rest of the book meanders around Margo’s disappearance, helping readers acquaint themselves with Quentin’s family, friends and himself. Following a series of clues Margo leaves behind, the besotted Quentin spends much of his senior year unravelling the mystery as to the real Margo and where she might be. It is here that we experience Green’s brilliance in the way the character of Margo is created: She is the archetype of an enchanting and exuberant pixie girl who injects life into her brooding lover, charming him with her quirky characteristics and eccentricities.

But of course, the story is but a destruction of this trope. As Quentin moves further in his journey to Margo, he begins to realise that the girl he has fallen in love with might never have existed. Everyone around him has their own opinion of Margo which is mostly limited to her appearance and elaborate pranks. No one really seems to know her!

Green can arguably be criticised for rehashing the now hackneyed storyline featured in most of his work. Quentin and Margo are pretty much the same as Colin and Katherine from An Abundance of Katherines (2006) and Miles and Alaska from Looking for Alaska (2005). The male leads are always collected and thoughtful young men who find themselves caught up with unpredictable and unattainable young women. In each of his books, Green routinely builds up the hype around the beautiful dream girl and then breaks it down.

Fortunately, this does not detract from the fact that Green knows how to write well and tug at the heartstrings of his teenage readers. He understands his characters and audience well, offering dialogues and emotions the latter sympathise with. A point where Quentin is conversing with his parents on the dinner table or singing along with his friends on an ill-planned and last-minute road trip are moments we can all relate to. And that, more than anything else, makes this book worth a read. 

Anum Shaharyar is a freelance writer. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Mass Communication.

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 26th, 2015.

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