Similar to my experience with The Fault in Our Stars, it took a trailer for an upcoming movie adaptation to finally get me interested in reading the obnoxiously popular books of John Green. Also similar to The Fault in Our Stars: I find myself outside the fandom once the pages are done turning.
The reason that these movie trailers sell Green’s books so well is that he has a knack for coming up with interesting and compelling stories. In Paper Towns, we follow high school senior Quentin through the night of his dreams as the object of his obsession takes him on an adventure he will never forget. The next day he wipes the bliss from his eyes, only to see that Margo Roth Spiegelman has chosen that night to be her last in the lives of everyone she knows. Margo Roth Spiegelman has disappeared. Ooooooooo…
This isn’t the first time that Margo Roth Spiegelman has chosen to leave home, and like all those previous escapes, she has left clues behind to explain where she has gone. This is a great premise on its own, but the problem is that my hope for what would come from this didn’t line up with the story Green wanted to tell. I was hoping for a parting gift from Margo Roth Spiegelman that would give Quentin the opportunity to truly embrace life in a way that Quentin believed Margo Roth Spiegelman to live, which is what the trailer hints at, but in the end all Paper Towns is is a story of obsession. All Quentin wants to do is find this girl built up in his mind, the girl of his dreams, and in the end this makes him a protagonist that irritates the reader as much as he irritates his friends on many occasions. I still pulled for him because I wanted him to be happy, but in the end what he wants and what I want are two different things.
Worse still, the plot of this book sets everyone up for a disappointing and unsatisfying conclusion, no matter how the story ends. If he doesn’t find her then it will all feel like a waste, especially because he hasn’t grown as a character, and if he does find her it won’t be as fulfilling as it originally projected to be as we looked through bright eyes full of hope. All that is left is to be let down by who Margot Roth Spiegelman turns out to be.
Onto the nit-picking: you’ll note I keep spelling her name out in its entirety, and there is a reason for this. It’s because this is what Quentin does to show that she is an ideal. I loved this detail in the writing, but before I could truly praise Green for this choice he was showing his hand, making sure everyone is aware of what he is doing. That’s one of the problems I have with Green as a writer: he tends to over explain everything. I don’t think he is writing down to his reader, but it can come off that way as he doesn’t allow us to come to our own conclusions. Why not allow the reader to make the connection as to why Quentin was assigned Moby Dick in his English class when you can write it out in so many words, making sure we get the clever choice?
Another thing Green seems to love to do is have his characters obsessed with certain written works. With how many times the title of the main character’s favorite book was written out in The Fault in Our Stars I’m surprised I somehow managed to wipe all traces of it from my mind, and here is no different. One of the clues left behind is a book of poems from Walt Whitman, a man who deserves to be obsessed about I’m sure, but I’ve had enough of this man now and I have never even read one of his works. Well, at least not in addition to the excerpts put into Paper Towns. If Quentin is not talking about Margo Roth Spiegelman, he is talking about this poem. Seriously, this boy and his writer know how to obsess.
In the end this capacity for obsessing is the book’s downfall. It just gets obnoxious, and it’s hard to cheer for a character who starts to get slightly more irritating than endearing. I still hoped for the best in the end, but even then I had no idea what the best would be after it all: Margo Roth Spiegelman didn’t really do anything for Quentin, so why should we want to find her? The whole book builds towards an ending that just can’t make the rest of the book feel worth it, especially when it isn’t quite an adventure as the scavenger hunt loses emphasis. The only thing that could make it all worth it is a growth in character of Quentin, a journey that allows him to be satisfied with what he has and not obsessed with the idea of something, and that’s just not something accomplished here. So though the idea of the book is strong, like the idea of Margo Roth Spiegelman, it just isn’t all hoped for in the end.