I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about the third novel I’ve read by John Green, Looking for Alaska. I read it a few weeks ago, so I’ve had time to let the thoughts process and now I feel like I can properly review it. So—here we go. John Green’s first novel—and my third, after The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns—is somewhat weak and fails to be edgy or poignant in the way his other two novels (that I read) succeed spectacularly. I was underwhelmed by this one and frankly, sometimes annoyed while reading. Here’s why.
For starters, this book begins with an unpopular but circumspect teenage boy named Miles Halter, who leaves his public high school for boarding school in Alabama. He hopes that a change of scenery will cause him to have great adventures, something he calls “The Great Perhaps,” quoted from Francois Rabelais’s supposed last words. That’s another thing—Miles is obsessed with memorizing famous people’s last words, and he knows hundreds. When he arrives at Culver Creek boarding school, he gets mixed up with some less-than-popular but lovable students, among them his roommate “The Colonel” and the fiercely independent, smart, beautiful and self-destructive Alaska Young, whom Miles falls head-over-heels in love with.
Alaska is a foul-mouthed, philosophical, brilliant and severely depressed young woman with self-destructive tendencies, but she’s fascinating to Miles. I think that I liked this book so much less than I thought I would because I had no patience for Alaska’s antics, and little reason, besides the superficial attraction Miles feels, to understand why Miles falls in love with her. Still, there are a few beautiful turns of phrase that Green is famous for:
“So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”
Honestly, Alaska annoyed me. She also reminded me of a much more interesting and complex character, Green’s own Margo from Paper Towns. They both have the same “hurricane” qualities and the same magnetic personality, but Margo was much, much less selfish than Alaska. Miles also reminded me of a less polished version of Quentin of the same novel, so I was left feeling like I had read an unfinished sketch of Paper Towns.
There’s also a thread running throughout Green’s novels, including An Abundance of Katherines (but missing from The Fault In Our Stars, to great effect), of a young, insecure teenage boy who becomes obsessed with a girl he doesn’t understand and therefore romanticizes in his mind. I’m becoming impatient with this storyline.
What also added to this feeling was that this is a semi-autobiographical account of something that happened to John Green, so there’s this feeling of apology, something Green had to either explain or get off his chest, and the novel felt like a true story being sloppily repackaged into something more easily digestible. This may also be the reason why the characters don’t feel true to life; ironically, I often feel like characters based on real people don’t come alive as much, bogged down as they are by the author’s own experience of them in real life.
The story’s events are a little uneven, but there are a few beautiful moments of philosophical introspection that rang very true to me. John Green is obviously a very talented writer and this just seems like a typical imperfect first novel, and if I hadn’t started backward with his oeuvre, I’m sure this one would stand out so much more in my mind.
“Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia…You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”