What would you do if all of your strings broke? Broken strings is one of the fresh metaphors in Paper Towns, the newest novel by John Green, for older cliches, like being at wit’s end or at the end of one’s rope. Margo Roth Spiegelman, the main female protagonist of the book, discovers a dead man’s body in Orlando, Florida’s Jefferson Park when she is nine years old.
Biking with her friend Quentin (known also by his first initial nickname, Q), Margo spots the body first. Later, after they report the death to their parents and they call the police, Margo conducts an investigation to discover more about the dead man. She asks people around Jefferson Court if anyone knew the man, and a Mrs. Feldman tells her his name was Richard Joyner. A policeman answers more of her questions: Richard Joyner was a thirty-six-year-old lawyer, and he killed himself with a gun. Juanita Alvarez, who lived next door to him, tells Margo “he was getting a divorce and he was sad about it.” Quentin mentions that lots of people get divorces but don’t kill themselves, so there had to be something more to it than that. Margo comes up with her own theory:
“I think I maybe know why,” she finally said.
Q. idolizes Margo from boyhood on. Paper Towns, among other things, is about Q.’s unrequited love and search for her when she runs away during their senior year in high school, after first spending a night with him driving her around getting revenge on various people who’d wronged her.
“Maybe all the strings inside him broke,” she said.
In his search for Margo, Q. learns more about who the real Margo is, versus the person he’s imagined her to be. She leaves behind a series of clues, as she has other times when she’s disappeared for short periods and come back on her own. She’s one of the most popular girls in school, a girl who seems to delight in being the center of attention and who knows the effect her beauty has on boys. She is a trendsetter, looked up to by the girls and fantasized about by the boys.
But who really ever knows what another person is like, deep inside? We often view people as reflections of ourselves and how we feel they are like, treating them, as the book puts it, like “mirrors” of ourselves. That’s how Q. has always viewed Margo, as well as a mystery to be solved. Q. and his friends Ben and Radar don’t know much initially about who the real Margo is, but they learn more and more about her as they follow the intentional and unintentional clues she’s left behind.
Despite Margo’s and Q.’s finding Joyner’s dead body in the first chapter and Margo’s running away, Paper Towns has many humorous, light-hearted moments in it. It’s reminiscent of the movies Juno and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and I could picture in my mind how the book might look as a movie, maybe featuring Michael Cera (who was the lead in both of those flicks and in TV’s very funny show, Arrested Development).
One funny bit involves Radar’s parents' collection of Black Santas. He’s kind of embarrassed that they have so many and worries about asking friends over because of their obsession with them. They seem to lurk like vultures, waiting for a man in Pittsburgh who has an even bigger collection of Black Santas to die so they can snap up his collection and add it to theirs.
All of the main characters have one or more obsessions - Radar’s is to constantly check and update the novel’s version of Wikipedia, the Omnictionary. His research is very useful in helping to track down Margo. Learning more about Margo - and finding her, of course - is Q.’s obsession. Ben’s is to try to get a girl (he refers to them as “honey bunnies”) to go to the prom with him. Their obsessions illustrate how, in general, we all are obsessive to one degree or the other, and how that gets in the way of learning who the people we think we know so well really are.
The title means different things at different parts of the book, and there are the meanings Margo tries to convey that Q. interprets somewhat differently from her. Margo refers to Orlando as a paper town, with paper buildings and paper people. Though she’s actually including herself as one of the “paper people,” Q. thinks she’s referring to the newness, the impermanence and lack of substance of the town, buildings, and people there. Later, he reads that paper towns can mean subdivisions that were planned and begun but never completed, and he spends a lot of time researching and tracking down various examples of these are to try to locate Margo or more clues she might have left behind.
Another appealing aspect of Paper Towns is the musical and literary references to people like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. John Green has previously written the excellent and award-winning novels Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines, and fans of those will enjoy this one. My 14-year-old daughter really liked it a lot - she snagged it and read it first - and I liked it very much, too. It contains some profanity but is nonetheless sure to appeal to both teen guys and girls, and to even their parental units.