Whether your book group is composed of young people or older readers looking to explore young adult fiction, you can’t do much better than John Green. A former Booklist staffer, Green has gone on to real literary stardom, with each novel seeming to achieve more acclaim. His 2008 novel, Paper Towns, works on multiples levels: as a mystery, as a romance, as a coming of age story, as a comedy, as a road trip novel, and as a philosophical piece. That’s no mean feat for a quick reading 305 pages.
Quentin Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman grew up as neighbors and childhood friends, but as they aged, she became a super popular queen bee known for her exotic adventures and personality, while Quentin pursued a nerdier path, still nursing a crush on Margo, but no longer on her radar. Then one night late in their senior year, she reappears at his bedroom window, just as she did when they were little, and takes him on a magical night of pranks, confessions, and adventures. Quentin is smitten.
Unfortunately, the next day she disappears, and as the days pass, it becomes clear that this isn’t one of her usual adventures. For the rest of the book, Quentin obsesses over Margo, trying to piece together clues that she left intentionally and unintentionally, as well as some of the things she said on their night together. His friends Radar and Ben are sympathetic, but they also want to enjoy the last month of their senior year, especially since thanks to Margo, they are in a better position socially than they ever have been. Quentin struggles to discover whether she is alive or dead, searching through the deserted buildings and unfinished developments that Margo found more real than the plastic suburbs of Orlando where they live, a place she always talked about escaping.
Green’s characters are spot on, and if you grew up anywhere near the slow blooming literature and culture nerds that were like my friends, you’ll recognize them. He captures the obsessiveness, the romanticism, the humor of these kids perfectly. He understands the longing to find a place where one fits, the fickle nature of teen friendships, the insecurities that hide behind the swagger of young people. The book even comes with multiple covers, just beginning to represent the different views of Margo that Quentin and his friends discover they hold as they try to understand the enigma of her personality.
A book group might enjoy looking at all of Green’s books in one discussion. He definitely has common themes that he works in his novels, and this book shares much with his other early works Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. His collaboration with David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and his latest book–perhaps the best received of them all–The Fault in Our Stars, have also been well reviewed. Pick one up and I think you’ll understand what all of the fuss is about.