I’m going to be real with you, Paper Towns is not my favorite book. I’ve read it two and a half times (half because I started reading it to my partner in Spring but just kind of lost steam and never finished it) and I just don’t love it. I will say that having read it a few times, it’s growing on me a little bit as I notice more things that I didn’t necessarily notice before.
Paper Towns is the story of the night Quentin “Q” Jacobsen is accosted by his frenzied next door neighbor who has climbed through his bedroom window after roughly a decade of no communication, the escapades she drags him along to participate in, and the weeks that follow.
Margo Roth Spiegelman is the greatest irritation of my life. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Life is full of irritations. But I really just don’t like her.
I’m not the only one; John Green has been asked (evidently a number of times) whether Margo was meant to be likeable and in his response on his FAQ about Paper Towns, he basically skirts the question by saying things like “I don’t really think characters need to be likable for stories to be worth reading.” and “I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books a supposed to be likable.” and even “Did I intend Margo to be likable? I intended her to be complex. I wanted her to be someone the reader could learn to empathize with, someone who makes very different decisions from most of us but whose decisions have a kind of internal consistency and integrity that makes them morally defensible.”
So basically, he says she’s intentionally garbage, but he doesn’t actually outright say it.
Q, on the other hand, is actually quite likeable, albeit a little wrapped up in his own little world. His biggest character flaw by far is his relentless fascination with Margo.
The gist of the book is that Margo and Q were best pals when they were children, but then made a traumatic discovery together that sparked some kind of twisted thought process in Margo while Q’s parents (both therapists by trade) sought to help him process what he saw. For reasons that are never fully explained (because the book is in Q’s limited point of view) Margo has gone, well, off the deep end.
Her boyfriend had been cheating on her with her best friend and when she learned about this (on top of her multiple previous runaway attempts and intense desire to leave Orlando), she suckered Q into a night of pranking, payback, and general absurdity.
And then she disappeared.
Q, reeling from the night of absurdities, becomes totally preoccupied with hunting down Margo’s whereabouts with clues she left behind. He goes alone at times and his friends accompany him at other times, and he is simultaneously tormented by the fear of Margo’s death and obsessed with the possibility that she left a breadcrumb trail to lead him to her.
My personal favorite part of the book is near the end, when four teenagers skip their high school graduation and pile in a van to (hopefully) bring the witch hunt to a close. I’ve always been a sucker for a good tale of teens traveling alone. John Green must be, too, since it’s a recurring theme in a few of his novels.
The actual ending of the novel is not just anticlimactic, but in my opinion, a major letdown. I’m sorry, but it is.
The ending solidifies for me that Margo is an unlikeable, terrible jerk.
Although honestly, if I really put some thought into it, she comes across very much like the stereotyped manic pixie dream girl but also very much like a traumatized child who grew up to become reckless because she wasn’t treated like a traumatized child when she should have been.
I spent a lot of time this year thinking about how trauma and fear impact humans, largely because of my current psychology course and the state of the world, and I find myself examining the motives behind the behavior of everyone- including characters in novels. When I think about Margo Roth Spiegelman, I mean really think about her, I just see a broken kid whose parents failed to help her heal.
As I said (not very eloquently) in my goodreads review:
Paper Towns is not my favorite John Green novel. Margo Roth Spiegelman makes me want to pull out all of my hair. Q is a likeable character who gets wrapped up in all kinds of things he shouldn’t. This book is almost like a mystery, but not quite. It is also a testimony to how trauma can effect people, especially when it isn’t adequately addressed. I’d say I wouldn’t read it again, but I’ve read it 2.5 times at this point, so maybe I would.