Oh wow…I don’t know where to even begin with this review. Okay, let’s start out by enumerating the most important elements of a good book. First and foremost a good read must have likeable, well-developed characters. Then, of course, there needs to be a plot. And let’s not forget that with every story, there needs to be believability. Even fantasy books have to be rooted in some semblance of reality, otherwise how are the readers ever going to relate to the story, the characters, the meaning of it all?!?
Now let’s dissect the many ways John Green ignored these key elements in this hot mess of YA fiction.
In this high school melodrama, I’m stuck with a whiny high school kid and his snarky clique of boarding school chums, all of whom are way too cool for school. Gee, does this sound vaguely familiar? Oh probably because the same annoying characters from Paper Towns were plopped into this book!
Remember that old MTV cartoon Darea? You know, the one about the emo monotone girl who mocked everything around her? Well if you enjoyed that, I suppose you might relate to these yahoos. I, on the other hand, got tired of the irony of it all. They were all so enveloped in their own little narcissistic worlds, save for the ringleader of the bunch, ironically named “The Colonel” who did have a few redeeming qualities. Come to think of it, this book might actually have been worthwhile if he was the lead character. But nope, we’re stuck in Pudge’s one-track mind throughout this sluggish journey of self-discovery. He’s that friend (we’ve all had one) who drones on and on about an unattainable crush, constantly ruminating about her mysterious ways. Who is the real Alaska? What’s driving her crazy mood swings? Why is she so self-destructive? WHO CARES?!? The girl in question—poetically named Alaska—is not in any way interesting, enigmatic or likeable. She knows poor Pudge has it bad, so she plays him like a fiddle, flirting, teasing and stringing him along just for fun. Playful and chummy one minute, downright evil the next (someone get this girl an exorcist!), Alaska is clearly surfing the extreme end of the bipolar spectrum. But, alas, this mysterious goddess rocks Pudge’s world, so he must make it his quest figure her out and ultimately get in her pants. And there, my dear readers, is your plot.
Halfway through the book I started to question when the plot would take shape. Come to think of it, that’s probably the point when you should call it a loss and toss it in the DNF pile. But like a good soldier, or idiot, I continued on. Like Alaska’s shameless teasing, the provocative chapter headings that counted down the “days before” kept me reading. What catastrophic even awaited this group of sardonic teenagers? Who’s gonna bite the big one? Please tell me it will be Alaska. Until we reach the aftermath chapters, the story slogs along at a snail’s pace. Here’s what we’ve got: Bored little rich boy demands to go to boarding school so he can find “the great perhaps.” He immediately joins the cool misfit clique (think Perks of Being a Wallflower). Then it’s nothing but chain-smoking, esoteric musings of “escaping the labyrinth” and pranks against the rich kids. When the catastrophic event finally hits, I’m already over it.
I’m sure Green has met a teenager at some point in his adult life, but it sure doesn’t show in this book. Though they were all absorbed in their narcissistic worlds (an intrinsic quality of this particular age demographic), these poetically minded kids were WAAAAY beyond their years. Apparently they are all child prodigies that can speak and think at a level that would put a 50-year-old philosophy professor to shame. That, my friends, is unfathomable. The sad reality is that kids express themselves in 60 characters or less, or whatever threshold it is that Twitter allows. I’m sorry, John Green, but the young Jack Kerouacs of the world are few and far between. I have no doubt that Mr. Green was one of those gifted kids who spent his Friday nights memorizing the famous last words of great American presidents (one of Pudge’s shticks). But the chances of finding a group of millennials who all have impressive academic hobbies such as this are slim to none. There’s this golden rule in writing called “write what you know.” Green clearly does not know teenagers. It would behoove him to spend a day studying them in their natural environment –a One Direction concert perhaps—and really listen to their dialect.
On a happier note, I must admit that Green is a highly talented wordsmith. It’s easy to get lost in his lyrical prose and esoteric musings. But just like a movie can’t solely rely on all A-list actors, he can’t get by just on pretty writing. I know that YA is clearly a marketable genre for him, especially after his smashing success with The Fault in the Stars. But if he insists on creating these mythical teenage geniuses—who all seems to be cut from the same mold—these books are always going to miss the mark.