By John Green
“Nothing ever happens like you imagine it will,” she says.
“Yeah, that’s true,” I say. But then after I think about it for a second, I add, “But then again, if you don’t imagine, nothing ever happens at all.”
Ok, so let’s go over the plot points of a typical young adult romance: Boy and Girl were childhood friends. Now in high school, Girl is popular and Boy is not. Boy harbors not-so-secret crush on Girl. Girl disappears 82 pages into book. Wait. What? Exactly, the Boy’s main love interest disappears about a quarter of the way into Paper Towns, and he spends the rest of the book trying to find her. So if you thought this was a romance, get that thought out of your head. While three of the main characters are teenage boys and romance is frequently talked about, the vast majority of this book is about learning what love actually is and not falling into it.
The main storyline follows Quentin, who is slowly unravelling the mystery that is Margo Roth Spiegelman and continuously being shocked by revelations that he is head over heels for a girl who he apparently knows nothing about. And while Quentin is learning the dangers of falling in love with an idea and not a person, his friend Ben is also learning the same thing. He wisely points out in his teenage boy vernacular that “it’s easy to like someone from a distance. But when she stopped being this amazing unattainable thing or whatever, and started being, like, just a regular girl with a weird relationship with food and frequent crankiness who’s kinda bossy—then I had to basically start liking a whole different person.”
Green does an excellent job of creating characters and a story that are both realistic and fantastical at the same time. They do ridiculous things like break into SeaWorld and plan elaborate pranks, but they also get mad and stop talking because someone was acting stupid at a party. His characters come across as real people, and he doesn’t try to force a happy ending out of them. Rather, he lets them be true to themselves so that we find ourselves at a slightly unexpected ending that reinforces everything Green was saying throughout the book: stop falling in love with the ideal version of a person and start falling in love with someone who is good and bad mixed together.
Once again, Green hits the nail on the head with this novel. I was young once (I suppose I kind of still am), and I definitely fell in love with an idea instead of a person. It’s a dangerous thing that pokes holes in people and relationships, and there are too many books out there advocating the misconception of an ideal person and too few books championing the idea of, you know, people just being people. Green examines the hazards of imagining someone as larger than life with logic, provocative ideas, and maybe a good dose of self-experience, and he writes a poignant story about re-examining all of your preconceived notions of someone.
In some sense, Green’s novel Paper Towns is just like every other book he’s written. A teenager falls in love and through that experience learns a deeply moving life lesson. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean look at Harry Potter, arguably the greatest series of literature our generation will see. In every single book, Harry goes to school, something fishy happens, it’s traced back to Lord Voldemort’s scheming, and then Harry defeats him. But just like J. K. Rowling took on a different genre with her books by alter-ego Robert Galbraith, it’d be nice to see Green step outside his comfort zone with his next novel.
That being said, if you want to read the book that epitomizes John Green’s work, Paper Towns is that book. It’s his third novel, and it has everything he’s good at: intelligently realistic teenagers, humor, love, thought-provoking questions, and creative story lines. While An Abundance of Katherines leans toward being over-simplistic and Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars lean toward being over-dramatic, Paper Towns is neither, perfectly balancing the everyday with the unbelievable. It is moving without any need for spilling tears and an enjoyable and interesting jaunt through a teenager’s love life. For John Green, it looks like third time was the charm, but hopefully he continues to write books with as much heart and intelligence as Paper Towns.