Wednesday, 20 May 2015

#CBR7 10: Paper Towns, John Green

I read this at the request of a friend, who had really enjoyed it and wanted me to read it as well. Thanks to Malin (thanks Malin!) I was able to get hold of a copy and read it in an evening. My cheesecake -loving friend really enjoyed it; my own feelings were slightly more mixed.

Paper Towns is a book in three parts, but defining them involves spoiling the story, so I'm going to stick to being vague. All three parts have a different feel to them, and they take roughly a third of the book each - it's well-balanced and the writing keeps moving you forward. The journeys of the main character, both literal and metaphorical, are very detailed and realistic.

I strongly disliked Margo for the first half of the book. She embodies everything I hate about the manic pixie dream girl trope, and I hated Q's fixation on her and his own embodiment of the unhappy nerd stuck in friendzone trope. I really, really hate the friendzone bullshit narrative that nerd subcultures fixate on, and my exhaustion with MPDGs combined with what appeared to be a straight out friendzone bollocks meant that the only reason I got past the first half of the book at all was because I told my friend I would read it, and I didn't want to dismiss something he was so clearly invested in.

Fortunately for me, Green is a far cleverer writer than I gave him credit for to begin with. He explicitly deconstructs Margo's personality and life, exploding the manic pixie myth very effectively. He's less explicit about the friendzone thing, but I think it was less widely talked about when the book was written in 2009, and he still does present a good deconstruction of the ideas around it so he gets thumbs up from me for that.

The secondary characters were less good though. Part of this is the limitations of first-person narrative, combined with a less than completely reliable narrator, and in fact there is one really good scene where one of Q's friends calls him out on his lack of empathy with another member of their circle. In that respect, their flatness can definitely be viewed as a comment of Q's own self-absorption and carelessness. But the relationships his two best friends have are poorly investigated, and one in particular felt really clich├ęd and unrealistic.

There is a lot in this book for any aspiring teenage student of literature. That sounds more faint praise than I intend it to: the book perfectly exemplifies several literary themes and conceits which regularly feature in literature studies, and the characters are all in high school so it's going to resonate much more with a younger audience than most of the crap - sorry, classics - they make you study in school. That said, I can't bring myself to give the book a 5, because of how long I spent wanting to slap the two main characters upside the head. Which I guess is a feature of not being a teenager any more, something I am permanently grateful for.

4 out of 5, definitely recommended.
Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.

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