Paper Towns – Colours and Empty Spaces

I’m going to have to start this review with a confession. I picked up Paper Towns by John Green close to midnight one evening because I couldn’t fall asleep, and I was convinced this would put me to sleep faster than any other books available. I have seldom been so wrong.

Not only did I spend more than a few hours that night racing around Orlando in a minivan with Margo and Quentin that night, I finished the book before noon the next day.

The Colourful Life of Margo

Margo Roth Spiegelman is the stuff of legend. Everybody at school knows her, and her adventures. She once joined a circus, travelled to Mississippi and learnt how to play the guitar, and talked her way into a concert, met the band and rejected the bassist. She’s popular, she’s pretty, she’s unforgettable, she’s wild and magnificent.

Quentin Jacobsen is none of these things. They do have one thing in common though – they have been neighbours since they were two years old. Quentin can see her window from his bedroom, but that’s it. He’s in love, but Margo hardly seems to remember him. Until she climbs through his window one night wearing black face paint. This may not be normal neighbour behaviour,but this isn’t just any old neighbour, this is Margo Roth Spiegelman. She’s got some wrongs to right, and she’s decided that Quentin is the person to help her do it. And once she’s decided something, there’s really no stopping her. Quentin follows her on a whirlwind of a night ends with the two of them fox-trotting around the seal tank of SeaWorld.

The Cover of John Green's Paper Towns

The Cover of John Green’s Paper Towns

The next day Margo is gone. While the whole school is wondering about the adventures she’s having, Quentin can’t let her go. Margo has left clues, and Quentin intends to follow them, no matter where they take him.

Quentin becomes obsessed with finding Margo. While his friends are living and partying through the last days of high school and gluing beer can swords to their hands, like, you know, normal teenagers, Quentin is following the clues left for him, trying to get closer to Margo. He’s not the only one. I can understand wanting to know more about Margo. In my mind, she’s such a vivid and vibrant person, full of life and energy. She immediately drew me in, by the time I noticed it was already too late, I’d fallen for her just like Quentin did. How could I not? She sneaks into skyscrapers and exacts revenge on her ex boyfriends with the help of numerous dead fish. And then, just like Quentin, I started to notice that maybe the Margo I had fallen for wasn’t the same Margo Quentin had fallen for, and it certainly wasn’t the real Margo.

Margo is a character that lives off my wishes, dreams, hopes and experiences. The sudden realisation that she might not live up to my expectations was devastating. This is the beauty of the book. It makes you think about how you see yourself and other, and how they see you.

The Blanks

Next to the colourful and striking Margo, Quentin can seem rather bland. He doesn’t have any hobbies. In fact, while his friends are at band practise, he’ll just sit outside and wait for them. That how much he doesn’t have a hobby. His friends may spend hours editing Omnictionary, which is totally not Wikipedia, or looking for the perfect prom date with the perfect prom shoes, but not Quentin. The parents own the second largest black santa collection, or like to spend their mornings psycho analysing each other. I’m not sure which of these past times is healthier, but they make for a wonderfully rich background. Even security guards and other characters that are D-list supporting characters at best not only have hobbies, they also have background stories, dreams and ambitions.

Quentin’s only memorable character traits are his dislike of minivans and his obsession with the extraordinary and essentially flawless image of Margo. Leaving a character this central to the story so blank may seem like a bad idea, and I’m not going to deny that to some extent it is. The lack of depth makes it hard to form any emotional connection or attachment. But it does serve one important purpose: It makes it easy to slip into the character of Quentin, and relate, which is incredibly important for the book. After all, haven’t we all had a crush at some point in our lives? Granted, not everybody will go to the lengths that Quentin does, but it’s easy to see and understand why he is willing to spend a night in rat infested ruins just for a chance to see Margo again.

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Cara Delevingne plays Margo Roth Spiegelman who disappears shortly before prom. Quetin (Nat Wolff) searches for her.

Just like the book needs the wild, vivid and colourful Margo to fuel fantasies, it needs bland and tame Quentin.

Filling in the Blanks

Quentin is a blank slate. This makes it easy to slip into the role of Quentin, to slip into the colourful world that John Green has written. Anybody can be him. He allowed me to see Margo through his eyes, she went from being another character in a book to being somebody I felt a personal connection with. Quentin begins to slowly question his image of Margo, and tries to come closer and closer to the real Margo. And just like him, I started filling this new and real Margo with little pieces of myself, slowly replacing the old Margo, until she was completely gone. The vividness of Margo wasn’t just a result of a well written character. I ended up with a colourful and what I thought was authentic image of her but really, she was a product of my own imagination, filled with my own dreams and desires, a reflection of myself. This is what made the inevitable clash with the actual Margo so devastating.

Some books will stick in your head because they’re beautifully written, some because of unbelievable heroics or fantastically detailed worlds. Paper Towns isn’t set in a wonderful world of magic, nor is the writing anything to get overly excited about. The world it is set in is perfectly ordinary, it’s our own after all, and so is the writing. And therein lies the beauty of Paper Towns. This isn’t a story about some heroes in a land far away. This is a story about something far more ordinary. In some ways, it’s not even the story of Quentin and Margo They’re just blank pieces of paper, brought to life through my own imagination. It’s a story about you and me, and that’s what makes Paper Towns so extraordinary.

Win Tickets for the Exclusive Fan Screening

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Paper Towns will hit Swiss Cinemas on July 30th, 2015. Here’s a trailer!

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