This weekend, the film adaptation of my favorite John Green novel is being released. In light of this, I’d like to pause my usual On the Shelf book reviews in order to talk about why this story is important–not just to me, but to culture in general.
As far as plots go, Paper Towns isn’t anything special.
Q, the hero of the book, fits the average, nice guy mold to a tee. He drives his mom’s minivan, hangs out with the band kids, and hates the whole idea of prom. He actually tries (to an extent) in school, never breaks rules, and is secretly in love with the girl next door.
Then, one night, Margo Roth Spiegelman (the beautiful, mysterious girl Q loves) shows up at his window and takes him on the all-night, prank filled adventure of his dreams.
We live in a culture that idealizes women. We place them up on pedestals and only see the pieces of them that we choose. Women are viewed as perfect, pristine creatures that must be served, protected, and loved. In the process, their humanity slips away. Idealized women are scattered throughout literature, starting with the Troubadours in medieval France. It was true in the Victorian Age when Coventry Patmore wrote his famous poem about “Angels in the House“. It happens in Tennyson’s Guinevere in Idyls of the King–a poem in which the failure of Camelot’s queen to live on a pedestal brings about the destruction of a nation. The idealized women shows up in the form of Daisy Buchanan (a personification of the American Dream) in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There are hundreds of examples out there. Literature and film are great shapers of how people think and the presence of supposedly perfect women only leads to the expectation that such women actually exist. (Newsflash: They don’t.)
It’s not surprising, then, that our fictional friend Margo finds herself on a pedestal. In fact, this is one of the first things we ever learn about her. In the novel’s prologue, Q informs us that:
The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the Queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.
When the wonderful miracle that is Margo disappears, of course Q feels compelled to rescue her.
In addition to idealizing women, culture has messages for men as well. You see, we live in a culture that is obsessed with guys “getting the girl”. Don’t believe me? Go pick up any chick flick released in the past thirty years. You’ll see what I’m talking about. So many movies and books teach men that they can get the girl if they just try hard enough. Although this story line leads to some adorable, enjoyable, films, it also introduces rhetoric that is alarming. It implies that nice guys get girls. Which isn’t always the case.
Messages like these are powerful. They have consequences. In 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree on his college campus to enact revenge against all women. His logic? Watch the video he made before committing his murders. It’s bone-chillingly familiar.
Back to Paper Towns.
The story has been told before. Average boy (Q) loves unattainable, idealized girl next door (Margo). Idealized girl disappears and average boy feels the need to rescue her. They fall in love, ride into the sunset, and live happily ever after.
Or do they?
This is where Green turns the tables. This is where things get good.
What if Margo is aware that everyone around her idealizes her? What if she would rather disappear completely than continue living on her pedestal? What if Q goes on a quest to save her but, instead of saving her, discovers that he never actually knew her in the first place?
The story’s main message is pounded into Q’s head through retracing Margo’s steps and closely analyzing Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself”. In order to find Margo, Q must put himself in her shoes, to see the world as she does. In the process, he learns that he knows nothing.
Q’s quest, ultimately, isn’t about Margo at all. It’s about stripping away preconceived notions and learning to see people as they really are. At one point, one of his friends even points this out, saying “You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves.”
Ultimately, this leads to Q’s major revelation:
Yes. The fundamental mistake I had always made—and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make—was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.
This is why I love Paper Towns. Green spoon feeds us the expected “boy gets girl” story only to turn the tables. The story isn’t about finding Margo. It’s about taking Margo off the pedestal and restoring her humanity. It’s about stripping away the ideal and acknowledging that people, even beautiful ones, are cracked, flawed, and messed up. In the end, the story presents us with the challenge of seeing people as they really are.
My favorite line from the book states it perfectly:
To finish it all off, I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation. I know it won’t be exactly like the book, but I’m okay with that. I’ve been assured by John Green (via Vlogbrothers videos) that it stays true to the message of the book–a message that I believe is powerful and relevant.
P.S. Much of this post was influenced by the Courtly Love literature class I took this past Spring. A huge thank you to my professor for giving me insight into the importance of these messages and the way they affect society.