Quentin has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman since their parents moved next door to one another in Central Florida.* Quentin’s narrative begins by remembering Margo from when she was nine-years-old, when “she wore white shorts and a pink T-shirt that featured a green dragon breathing a fire of orange glitter. It is difficult to explain how awesome I found this T-shirt at the time.” Margo wore the dragon t-shirt on the morning that she and Quentin found a dead body in their neighborhood. After asking around, Margo finds out that the man that they found out was thirty-six-year-old Robert Joyner, and that he committed suicide because of an impending divorce. Even though Quentin tries to explain, “Lots of people get divorces and don’t kill themselves,” Margo sees it differently, and she tells Quentin, “Maybe all the strings inside him broke.” The first few pages of the book, and their varying views on death and suicide, explain a lot about Quentin and Margo, and why they don’t speak throughout almost all of high school. They don’t reconnect until one random night a few weeks before graduation when Margo climbs through Quentin’s bedroom window and asks for a favor.
Quentin agrees to go with Margo, “borrowing” his mom’s minivan to drive through Central Orlando, following Margo’s step-by-step plan that begins at a Publix grocery store:
“Now, I’m not sure what you’re supposed to say to the checkout woman at twelve-thirty in the morning when you put thirteen pounds of catfish, Veet, the fat-daddy-size tub of Vaseline, a six-pack of Mountain Dew, a can of blue spray paint, and a dozen tulips on the conveyor belt. But here’s what I said: ‘This isn’t so weird as it looks.’”
After their night together, Quentin believes that things have changed: he’s going to go to school, Margo’s going to come back into his life, and they won’t go back to ignoring each other again. Instead, Margo disappears. And even though she’s run away before, Quentin knows that this time seems different, and more final.
But a detective who has been involved with Margo’s disappearances before tells Quentin that she leaves clues behind that would guide her parents to where she’s run to; they just usually can’t decipher them. For example, she left the letters “M-I-S-S-“ in her alphabet soup before she disappeared to Mississippi. Quentin is determined to find her, and believes Margo has left a series of intricate clues that are for him, starting with a Woody Guthrie poster taped to the window facing Quentin’s bedroom.
Forming the background of Quentin’s self-imposed mystery is the end of high school, prom, and graduation. Balancing the frantic can’t-turn-back of both of these events – Margo’s disappearance and the nearing end of high school – isn’t that difficult for Quentin, who, already, is not really a fan of everything that comes with graduation. He explains, “It was a well-known fact that I was opposed to prom. Absolutely nothing about any of it appealed to me – not slow dancing, not fast dancing, not the dresses, and definitely not the rented tuxedo. Renting a tuxedo seemed to me an excellent way to contract some hideous disease from its previous tenant, and I did not aspire to become the world’s only virgin with pubic lice.”
Finding Margo becomes more important than all of that, even though his friends, Radar and Ben, eventually get swept up into the occasion. And some of the exchanges between Quentin, Radar, and Ben definitely highlight the humorous side of Green’s writing, that are so worth it to find scattered throughout the novel.
Still, even with the dueling events at the heart of the novel, Paper Towns looks at the way that people can become abstracted, fictionalized ideas of who they really are. It’s similar in this way to Green’s Looking For Alaska, as in both novels Green’s male protagonists become fascinated by a larger-than-life female character, too big to pin down, to date, or to really know. In Paper Towns Margo gets turned into an idea, and even though Quentin thinks that he is deconstructing his idea of her as he follows Margo’s clues, he is really just searching to create new ideas and new Margos that are more tactile than the one he couldn’t know. John Green’s nuanced, pop-culture heavy, philosophical writing, makes all of his books so worth reading. He uses Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as a poetic and philosophical guide for Quentin, and it also becomes a text that holds clues to Margo’s disappearance. All of the separate threads of Paper Towns culminate in beautiful writing, particularly at the end where Green writes,
“Maybe it’s more like you said before, all of us being cracked open. Like, each of us starts out as a watertight vessel. And these things happen – these people leave us, or don’t love us, or don’t get us, or we don’t get them, and we lose and fail and hurt one another. And the vessel starts to crack open in places.”
* The geography is one of the reasons that I loved this book. In the acknowledgments of Paper Towns, John Green thanks his parents and adds, “I never thought I would say this, but: thank you for raising me in Florida.” I graduated from high school in Florida right in the geography where Green’s novel is set, and sometimes for me reading a book where I know the place well enough to recognize neighborhoods and streets when they are named in books makes me want to keep reading even more.