At a superficial level, Paper Towns
is not much apart from a regular YA novel.
It's about American teenagers doing what teenagers do - surviving high school, trying to fit into social cliques, getting into colleges, dating, breaking up, dating again, losing their virginities and so on and so forth.
Yet simmering 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 - a rebellious 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 had a crush on Margo since he was a kid.
But how does he find her when she has disappeared of her own free will and apparently without a trace? - Turns out Margo has left clues behind for only Quentin to piece together and find 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 teenage years in a country like 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, forge sexual dalliances, smoke pot, go clubbing,(sometimes) engage in illegal activities, take a gap year after school and mainly act and behave like adults (as per what is shown in tv shows and written in books), a good majority of Indian teens are busy taking private 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 across a YA story which is able to surmount the barriers of stiff cultural divides and sing to the universal human spirit instead.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, minor flaws and inconsistencies. The pairing up of the school geek with the school beauty, her jock boyfriend, 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 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 help you crack a smile here and there. -
"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 girls as "girls in the marching band."
Also 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 and symbolism of it will not fade away from my memories any time soon.
John Green dares to ponder on the difference between being in love with the hypothetical idea of a person and being in love with the actual person of flesh and blood, while staying within the limits of a genre not noted either for its depth or emotional range.
And this is why, Paper Towns
stays with the reader long after he/she has finished reading it - as a great story and as a somewhat sentimental discourse on the imperfection of life.
It also reinstates my faith in the existence of good young adult literature.