Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review : Paper Towns by John Green

I sit here at my desk, staring blankly at the notepad document wondering what kind of a review will be able to portray effectively all that I felt for this book and yet manage not to come off as an incoherent, mawkishly emotional discourse on the failings of life.
On the one hand, there's this hazy voice at the back of my head - the one voice embodying the spirit of the slightly snooty me who almost had me convinced that I won't find another good YA book to read again - telling me to single out all the minor flaws and inconsistencies, elaborate on them and dismiss John Green with a condescending, pat-on-the-back kind of review.
On the other hand, there's the voice of the the flawed, often conflicted, unsure but honest me - asking me to be generous instead of patronizing, to have the courage to admit that the poignant ending made me shed tears and that often, our heart craves for a heart-warming, bittersweet yet simplistic story that represents life itself, in its myriad manifestations, rather than endless pages of rich, flowery prose and little more.
I am honoring the intentions of the second voice. (I mostly go with the second voice. Please care to note the word 'mostly'.)

At a superficial level, Paper Towns, is not much apart from a regular YA novel. It's about American teenagers doing what teenagers do - survive high school, try to fit into social cliques, get into colleges, date, break up, date again, lose their virginities and so on and so forth.
Yet deeper beneath that surface, it is a story flavoured with the bittersweetness of life itself.
It is about an unremarkable, often ignored boy named Quentin whose presence is almost taken for granted by every one around him. And it is about his polar opposite - an exceptionally interesting girl called Margo, Quentin's neighbor, who is seen only as the quintessential popular girl at school. And it is about the pair of them discovering who they really are underneath that exterior of carefully preserved appearances through a long and convoluted process..
When Margo goes missing after a night of vengeance wreaked on a handful of people at school who 'betrayed' her, the only person truly interested in getting her back or finding out her whereabouts is none other than Quentin. Because, predictably, our male lead has a crush on Margo since he was a kid.
But how does he find her when she has disappeared supposedly without a trace? - Turns out Margo has left clues behind for only Quentin to piece together and figure out where she is headed and more importantly, why she has taken off abruptly anyway.
This puts Quentin at the head of a long, winding, physical and metaphysical journey of deconstructing the enigma that Margo Roth Spiegelman is, figuring out where she is and in the process of it all, coming closer to understanding himself and the people around him better.

As a woman who spent her adolescence in a country named India, let me say that American YA fiction makes us feel as if we're reading about people from an alternate plane of reality. While American teens go to prom, date, lose their virginity, smoke pot, go clubbing, (sometimes) engage in illegal activities, take a gap year after school and mainly act and behave like adults, Indian teens are busy taking tuitions to get into the premier engineering institute in the country.
Because our society holds a degree in engineering in the highest regard and sees it as a one-way ticket to the realm of financial eminence.
So it's more of an understatement to say that we do not relate to American teens - we read these YA novels partly out of bizarre fascination and partly out of curiosity.
But rarely do we stumble upon a YA book which is able to surmount the barriers of stiff cultural divides and sing to the universal human spirit.
Paper Towns is like that rare gem in a genre well-known for its banality. It is alternately frivolous in its portrayal of teenagers and melancholic in its ruminations on life, love and the way we choose to put labels on people without caring to know the real person under the disguise of the stereotype.
But it is not free from its quota of cliches and minor flaws. The pairing up of the school geek with the school beauty, her jock boyfriend and bitchy best friend and two additional nerdy boys as sidekicks of the male lead - these are but formulaic elements found in a run-of-the-mill YA novel.
Also, in real life a girl like Margo Roth Spiegelman is unlikely to exist and even though she insists on the contrary, her penchant for drama and actions appear to be desperate bids for more attention - a fact John Green doesn't gloss over by making the side characters point this out to Quentin time and again. There's also something very Holden Caulfield-ish about Margo, a thought I just couldn't get out of my head.
Not to mention, the whole premise comes off as a little unrealistic as well - Margo is repeatedly shown to be a near invincible character whose plans and designs seldom fail.
But even so, the strengths of this book do enough to overshadow its shortcomings. John Green's fast dialogue and witty one-liners make you smile.
"Getting you a date to prom is so hard that the hypothetical idea itself is actually used to cut diamonds."

"Girls dig you," he said to me, which was at best true only if you defined the word as girls as "girls in the marching band."

Some of the hilarious situations that Quentin and his friends find themselves in during the course of their road trip, made me laugh out loud multiple times. Which doesn't happen often.

Ben keeps bouncing his legs up and down.
"Will you stop that?"
"I've had to pee for three hours."
"You've mentioned that."
"I can feel the pee all the way up to my rib cage," he says. I am honestly full of pee. Bro, right now, seventy percent of my body weight is pee."

And what sealed my absolute, unwavering love for this book was the ending. The sheer poignancy of it will stay with me for a long time.
John Green dares to ponder on the difference between being in love with the idea of a person and being in love with the actual person, while staying within the limits of a genre not noted for its depth or emotional range.
And this is why, Paper Towns stays with the reader long after he/she has finished reading - as a great story and as a somewhat sentimental discourse on the imperfection of our lives.

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