by: John Green
This is the second John Green book I’ve read, the first being The Fault in Our Stars. I’m just going to come right out and say that this book wasn’t as good as The Fault in Our Stars. It wasn’t. Green may never write another book as good, honestly.
That being said, this is still a really good book. It’s narrated, first person, by Miles “Pudge” Halter, a teenage boy obsessed with last words, off to find his Great Perhaps. (taken from the poet Francois Rabelais’ dying phrase “I go to seek the Great Perhaps.”) Halter, a disconnected adolescent with a desire for adventure, sends himself off to boarding school in the belief that it would be a waste to wait for death to find his own Great Perhaps. There he meets the Colonel – jaded, angry, and incredibly intelligent – and Alaska, bright, young, and self-destructive. The story chronicles Miles’ first year at Culver Creek Boarding School.
The second half is better than the first half – and this is a book with definite halves. I didn’t much care for Miles at first – for all his nonsense about the Great Perhaps, he is completely disconnected from the people and world around him. It takes a good deal of the book for him to truly invest in his own life. I have little patience for that, though it didn’t deter me from reading. He doesn’t really speak out for much of the novel, whereas I’ve always been attracted to characters with a voice, with a purpose. I liked the Colonel much better, though – he was angry and loud and opinionated. Not angry as in yelling at everyone always; angry in that deep-down kind of way that isn’t directed at anyone in particular. (There are a lot of passive young adult heroes where part of the journey is learning to find their voice. I guess I never had any trouble finding mine, so I don’t really relate.)
Alaska, on the other hand, is wildly disappointed with life and herself and doesn’t know how to handle either. I don’t know if I liked her or not; I don’t think it matters all that much. She’s deeply unhappy and incredibly intelligent; she’s an emotional mess yet fun and generous; she doesn’t know herself and is uninterested in furthering the acquaintance. She captivates Miles the first time he sees her (but Miles is too young and in love to understand her.)
I really liked the format of the book and Green’s mastery of foreshadowing – there were times when I was consumed by a sense of sickening dread. It’s set up into Before (a countdown to) and After (a count from). Green’s an excellent writer – no complaints on that side. And it’s well-paced and a quick read; I wish it had been a little slower to give more time to process while I read but that’s all.
Thematically, Looking for Alaska deals with being a teenager; sex, love, grief, the discovery of others as complete human beings, and learning one’s self and one’s beliefs. Green spends a fair amount of time on the musings of beliefs that are associated with religion (but not necessarily indicative of it.) Suffering, the afterlife, the purpose of life – these are all contemplated in one way or another by the characters.
In a favorite moment of mine, Alaska asks “How do we get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” And as much as I didn’t like Miles, his innocence of suffering at the beginning of the book is key. He can engage with such questions philosophically but not emotionally; he explores the questions not struggling to escape from emotional quandaries but careening towards them. A more unique perspective and yet one that I feel is part of being a teenager.
Green also touches on responsibility in complicated and real ways. The responsibilities in both the big moments and the small moments are equally emphasized. Intertwined with the examination of responsibilities is the question of forgiveness; the two are rather inseparable. I loved the way he did that but can’t formulate thoughts without spoilers!
I really liked this book. I didn’t quite love it, but if you like thoughtful, well-written books about growing up, if you like serious YA literature, or if you like beautifully sad books, than you should give this book a try. John Green is not known for his happy endings, so if that’s your thing, or if you dislike passive or self-destructive characters, this may not be the book for you.
As always, spoilers are fine in the comments!