It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that made me pause, laugh out loud, and then reread the same lines multiple times. Paper Towns is the first John Green book I’ve read that lives up to his glorified reputation.
Green’s writing in this novel is perfectly witty and very intentional. He doesn’t waste words but instead wields them beautifully. The entire concept of the book is based on a very charming and metaphorically packed idea, a Paper Town.
A Paper Town is a nonexistent town written into maps as a copyright trap. If that town was found on a map made by a different company, they’d know they map had been copied.
This idea of things that don’t quite exist as they appear to, that we project our beliefs of who someone is and who we want them to be, is the central theme and moral from the story.
The story is about a boy named Quentin (Q) who lives next door to this mysteriously vibrant and perfect girl named Margo, whom he is in love with, of course. She’s got a reputation for running away, but when she suddenly disappears just before graduation, Quentin is afraid she might have plans to commit suicide. He also believes he’s her only chance at coming back and so he follows a trail of clues she’s left for him.
SPOILERS AHEAD. So stop reading now if you haven’t read the book. I mean it.
Margo disappears after chapter 9, out of 40, and Q spends the majority of the book obsessively searching for her, literally and figuratively. It’s almost all that he thinks about and this often involves lengthy analysis’ of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, these sections tend to drag a bit in my humble opinion.
The characterization in this book is easily the best part. Each of Q’s friends are so distinct and constantly consistent without remaining stagnant. Their witty banter and inside jokes were my favorite part of the book.
Ben, for example, refers to all women as hunny bunnies. This at first feels cheesy, but soon becomes endearing and eventually hilarious.
Radar is an editor and obsessor of Omnictionary, basically the fictitious version of Wikipedia, and his family is also the home of the Worlds Largest Collection of Black Santas. This is a great quirk to his character and another layer of theme regarding alternate perceptions of our world.
Lacey is Margo’s best friend, but quickly joins Q’s squad to help find her. At first she appears to be your typical popular pretty girl, and while most of those characteristics remain, she is surprising in the way that she cares for people and feels more deeply than you’d expect her to.
Eventually, Q finds the clue that’ll lead him to Margo’s location, Agloe NY, a Paper Town. The gang embarks on a time crunched road trip that brings them all a little closer. They find Margo, homeless and slightly manic, she refuses to return them, is angry that they even went after her. We learn the lesson, right along with Q, that everything we were told to believe about Margo was just who Q had wanted her to be.
At first you fall in love with, the idea of, the wonder that is Margo Roth Spiegelman right along with Quentin. But just in the way that an idea of a person is often disappointing, Margo Roth Spiegelman is disappointing. Her disappointment allows you to learn more about her character, yourself, and your perception of people.
Green compels his readers to think critically about identity and the way we often don’t see other people as the complex humans we are.
Movie adaptations should never be exactly the same as the book, they’re completely different ways of storytelling. Paper Towns did well to capture the most important parts of the book: the essence, themes and the characters.
I think they missed the big idea a bit though, that Margo was not this mysteriously wonderful person. In the book, she’s hugely disappointing for everyone when they find her a complete mess, but in the movie, Margo seems just fine. She seems happy and is wondering around the town as if she’s started over perfectly. Q continues to idolize her and doesn’t quite fully get that it was all a charade and that he had created this idea of her and loved that rather than actually knowing anything about her.
I really enjoyed that Quentin went to prom (he’s hugely opposed and doesn’t attend in the book). Angela, Radar’s girlfriend, had much more screen time and definitely added to the group dynamic in scenes she was written into. Q, Ben and Radar’s friendship was perfect and Lacey felt right as well. The scene where they’re all dancing at prom is one of my favorites. I could watch those boys banter all day.
I also liked that they cut back on his time consuming obsession with finding Margo and obsessing over Walt Whitman. The soundtrack was a wonderful companion and reflection of the emotions we felt.
Also I’m so obsessed with Ansel Elgort’s surprise cameo. I do love dragons.
Book or Movie First?
The book. If you watch the movie and then read the book you’ll be heavily disappointed, perhaps a bit depressed even, with how we find Margo in the end and with the true length to which Quentin forgoes his life and friends to obsess over her. These are all really important to the book’s theme, but could be disappointing if you have another idea of these characters and the better choices they displayed in the film.