Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
I admit it. I just love John Green’s books. I started with Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I guess is sort of backwards because it was his most recent work. But I loved it so much that I stepped back into Looking for Alaska and now Paper Towns. Once again, Green has done a great job of showing teen relationships—the group of guys at the center of this story (our protagonist and his two best friends) is hilarious. Q (for Quentin), Ben, and Radar (who edits Omnictionary, a fictional Wikipedia, and whose parents own the world’s largest collection of Black Santas) are spot-on in their conversations, their ‘dissing’ one another, their geekiness, and in the way they ultimately have one another’s backs. But while we do have a bit of ‘bromance’ here, the deeper story is about Q’s relationship with Margo Roth Spiegelman.
The story grabs the reader in the prologue when Q and Margo, living in Orlando, Florida, are only 10 years old. On a trip to a local park, they find a dead man under an oak tree. Later they learn that he’s killed himself. While Q is very much afraid, Margo is curious and steps ever closer. This tells us a lot about their personalities. Later a character will say of her, “’She’s the kind of person who either dies tragically at twenty-seven like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, or else grows up to win, like, the first-ever Nobel Prize for Awesome.’”
The story itself takes place just weeks before Q, Ben, Radar and Margo are to graduate. Q and Margo live next door from one another, but over the years, they have separated as friends because Margo is beautiful and hangs with a cooler crowd than the band geeks. Q has always had a crush on Margo, and so when she appears at his bedroom window and tells him they are going to pull an all-nighter in which she plans revenge on her not-true friends (including one who is sleeping with Margo’s boyfriend and that boyfriend himself), Q ditches his safety/comfort-first personality for the chance to hang out with Margo. Their adventures are wacky—the kinds of things you wish you could really do to the people who betray you, but never can. (So live that fantasy through this book—it’s entertaining! Just to whet your appetite—they use 3 whole catfishes, Veet, Vaseline, Mountain Dew, tulips, water, tissues, blue spray paint.)
At school the next day, Q is wondering if he’ll be able to connect with Margo once again. But she’s not there. In fact, she’s disappeared, something that’s happened a few times before as she has careless parents and seeks attention. But this time, she doesn’t return. And now Q has a mission—to find her, to figure out if she’s committed suicide—certainly a possibility judging from the clues she’s left. He begins to follow her path starting with a volume of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and using passages she’s highlighted. Q seeks Margo in ‘paper towns,’ neighborhoods/subdivisions that were built and then abandoned.
“’I can hear Margo that night as we drove around Orlando. I can hear her saying to me, “I don’t want some kids to find me swarmed with flies on a Saturday morning in Jefferson Park.” Not wanting to be found by some kids in Jefferson Park isn’t the same thing as not wanting to die.’”
In seeking Margo, the guys and one of Margo’s friends (now also girlfriend of Ben) take a 24-hour road trip. It’s life-changing, just the way a graduation should be.
Just a note here: If you need to write a literary analysis, comparing the action/characters in this book to the characters/authors in the classic literature they are reading (Walt Whitman, Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick) would be a lot of fun. It’d be creative, too, and your teacher would think you were wonderful for bridging the literary canon and YA literature. 😉 )