I’m a little late to the game with some of John Green’s books, but I read An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns in the beginning of the summer. These two books, along with everything else that John Green has published, are staples of YA literature, and I had surprisingly never read them before (as a once-big-consumer of the YA genre). I had a lot of classics on my TBR list for this summer, but I thought ‘hey, why not take a jab at the other John Green books’ so I did. I wanted to relive my excitement at reading cliche YA tropes that I so lovingly devoured in my middle school days, so I made a little trip to my local library and borrowed the two books. In the past, I had read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and I absolutely LOVED it (as a 13 year old of course) and then after watching the movie quite recently a few months ago, I decided to reread it again just for fun. It wasn’t as good as I remembered it, but it was still quite an enjoyable read. That’s quite the same way I felt when I read An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns—it wasn’t as good as some people made it out to be, but it wasn’t bad.
Let’s start off with Paper Towns. It was the first of the two that I read, and it was everything that I remembered from YA novels: your average nerd who’s been in love with the hottest girl in school for forever, then they unexpectedly hang out (how dare the nerd and the hot girl talk to each other!), and then they kiss. Boom. There you go—the template for any generic YA story, you’re very welcome. Quentin is the typical nerd dude and Margo is the typical hot girl. Honestly, what more can I say? Ah, but it is a book review so I kind of have to say some things. Okay, so Margo is incredibly mysterious and one day she drags Q (Quentin’s nickname, quite obviously) out of bed (they’re neighbors—did I forget to mention this cliche?) and makes him drive the two of them to a Walmart, and then to the houses of her boyfriend and her friends. What exactly is she doing? She’s taking revenge on her boyfriend, who cheated on her with one of her friends, along with another friend, who didn’t bother telling Margo about what happened. Then, just like that, Margo disappears to the dismay of Quentin and her family. But, she’s pulled the disappearing act numerous times before, so nobody was really that surprised—except for Q, of course. So, he goes on this long and aggravating quest to scour out the few clues she’s scattered before she left town, and through this process his two friends Ben and Radar were introduced.
To be honest, I found Ben and Radar to be more enjoyable to read about than Q, because they actually had character to them. All I remember about Q (because this post has been in my drafts for about 2 months and it’s been a while since I’ve last read the book) is that he was always moping about Margo and essentially crowned her as the center of his existence. He even ditched graduation for her…and I have so many thoughts about that. Meanwhile Ben and Radar are cool people (albeit they were the typical nerdy sidekicks), and actually have characteristics that aren’t infatuated with a childhood crush they haven’t talked to in more than a decade. But anyway, my point is that Ben and Radar were better executed characters than Q.
The road trip that Q, Ben, Radar, and Lacey (the friend that didn’t tell Margo about her cheating boyfriend) all embarked on shortly after the four of them ditched graduation, was probably my favorite part of the book. The road trip part, not the ditching graduation part. I love road trips myself, so reading about them in books is quality entertainment for me. I mean, who could go wrong with a good ol’ road trip? They started from Florida and ended up in upstate New York in a day? Or was it less than a day? Well, it was definitely a time crunch anyway. I specifically really enjoyed that part when they stopped at the gas station and the four of them had a plan to fill up the gas, use the bathroom, find clothes (because Ben and Radar were fully naked under their graduation robes—see, told you that they’re the best characters), and buy food and drinks all in mere minutes. Everybody had their own designated role and as soon as their car pulled up to the gas station, everybody flew out trying to get everything done under the time crunch, and then that’s how Ben and Radar ended up with really inappropriate Confederate shirts (by accident, of course). And then after the gas station fiasco, the crazy cow car accident (wow, try saying that five times fast) was extremely enjoyable for me. First of all, I think this was my first time reading about a car accident caused by cows, which just makes it intriguing in general, but the fact that it was almost life-threatening? I don’t know if I’m underestimating the dangers of car accidents involving cows, but I never thought that it could end up almost fatally. Luckily, nobody in the book died, but Q escaped the scene with a gash on his head. And then we get to the point when our adventurers reached Agloe, New York—the paper town that Margo escaped to. The part we all waited for. The whole journey up north was to find Margo but when they finally found her, she obviously did not want to be found.
At first, I was puzzled by Margo’s reaction to the squad finally locating her—I thought she laid out the clues on purpose so that they could find her and live happily ever after I guess. But that wasn’t the case at all. Something I like about John Green is that he brings reality into his stories, unlike a good number of YA authors, and he did just that in Paper Towns. As soon as Q and company make their presence known, Margo starts to get upset and she proceeds to argue with every person present, including Q. A specific area she used to attack Q was his idealization of her. Ever since Q and Margo were friends as children, he had created this unintentional fantasy of her in his head—a perception that strayed far from who Margo really was. The whole time, Q was in love with his own idea of who Margo was. But at the same time, quite unexpectedly, Margo had her own fantasy of Q. And the real part about this whole thing is that it’s reflective of what we as a society do: we all have inadvertent fantasies of people whether that be celebrities, political leaders, friends, or even strangers. So Q was in fact obsessed with the idea of Margo, not the real her.
The ending of the book was better than I expected. Margo was reconciled with her family and Lacey, and later she and Q shared a long-awaited kiss. But what I liked most was how Margo’s character remained consistent to her mysterious persona, which was established at the beginning of the book, as she refused to return back to Florida with her friends. She hated that life, which was the reason why she ran away in the first place, and I feel like if Green made it so that she went back home with Q, it would’ve been really unfulfilling for her as a character. I also appreciate how Margo was a completely independent character—unlike the typical YA female lead whose (almost) every decision is somehow affected by a man. Margo stayed true to herself and stayed in Agloe while everybody went back home.
So, all in all, Paper Towns wasn’t the best read ever, but it wasn’t the worst. I think it had some questionable parts (ahem…Q ditching graduation for Margo), but it also had some enjoyable and quite profound moments that I appreciated as a reader. I think that John Green did a wonderful job blending in that comedic aspect of YA novels with the more sincere and deep moments, because that’s not easy. I went into reading Paper Towns thinking that it was another rom-com using the popular girl and nerd boy trope, but I was wrong! And thank God I was. As for its movie adaptation, I haven’t seen it yet and I’m starting to think that I shouldn’t watch it…While writing this post, I came across a Times article that compared the book to its film adaptation, and while I am very used to stark differences in book to film adaptations, the thought of watching something so starkly different from the original is distasteful to me at the moment.
And now it’s time for An Abundance of Katherines…
This book was also another typical YA narrative—a smart, yet extremely nerdy, guy can’t seem to keep a girlfriend. But in this specific story, all of his girlfriends—all 19 of them—were named Katherine. And all of their names were spelt the same way—Katherine. How interesting. Before I dove into the book, I was wondering how he managed to meet 19 Katherine’s in the span of his short life, and how in the world he managed to be attracted to all of them. But then, of course, actually reading it answered my question—he just happened to be attracted to girls named Katherine for some odd reason. Anyway, let’s get into An Abundance of Katherines.
Colin Singleton is a character of substance, unlike Q. He has managed to get with 19 girls named Katherine, and after being heartbroken by Katherine XIX, he and his best friend decide to hit the road for some fun. Ah, another road trip story—I love it. It’s essentially an aimless road trip, until Colin and Hassan end up being intrigued by a sign that claims the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s grave lay in a random field in the middle of Tennessee. Which then leads us to Lindsey Lee Wells, who acts as a tour guide for the boys as they ‘tour’ the Archduke’s grave (which really isn’t his grave, obviously). And then from there we end up in Gutshot, Tennessee, where Lindsey and her mom, Hollis, live. From there, a beautiful friendship between Colin, Hassan, and Lindsey, sprouts.
Also an important thing to note—you see, Colin was a child prodigy. At age 17 (or 18—I’m not sure, I just know he’s in his late teens), he holds himself to a higher standard—which is completely expected of because he was a child prodigy—and is thus disappointed in himself for not being a genius. These doubts in identity, as well as being hard on oneself, is something that people—especially teenagers—can relate to, and is once again another great example of how Green incorporates reality into his stories. Colin is an extremely intelligent guy, yet he doubts himself and thinks that he’s nothing, all because he didn’t discover gravity like Newton or developed physics equations like Einstein. And then on top of his internal crisis, he is still trying to get over being dumped by Katherine XIX. Poor kid.
Through his trials, we get to see Colin bloom as a character. Hassan and himself manage to create relationships with Hollis and Lindsey, thus earning them jobs (Hollis is a rich lady who runs a huge factory in Gutshot) and they end up thriving in an environment that was once so foreign to them. In the midst of his identity crisis and his heartbreak over Katherine XIX, he sets to work on an equation that could potentially predict the outcome of a relationship—talk about a diligent guy. There’s a bit about his equation that I liked: when Colin finally put his finishing touches on his theorem, he tested it out with one of the Katherines he once dated, and it ended up predicting that he would break up with her. Colin is so bamboozled by this because it was actually Katherine who dumped him, not the other way around. But after a phone call with that specific Katherine, he finds out that his theorem proved true—it was indeed Colin who broke up with Katherine. That was such a huge plot twist for me! Typing this out now makes it seem like not so much of a big twist, but I remember being so shocked. Anyhow, I was so happy for him, as he had been working on this equation for nearly half the book, as well as the fact that he finally got over Katherine XIX by realizing that he had affections for a non-Katherine—Lindsey. Not to mention that he stood up to Lindsey’s horrible excuse of a (ex) boyfriend (he was such a terrible character that I can’t even remember his name), thus showing his growth as a character. It wasn’t just Colin who got to experience growth though: Hassan, who once detested the idea of attending college, finally registered for classes at a higher institution!
And, guess what—the supposed grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was actually the grave of Lindsey’s grandfather, Fred N. Dinzanfar. Franz Ferdinand was actually an anagram of Fred N. Dinzanfar, hence the naming of the grave. And you can imagine Colin, being his anagram loving self, finding that out and being so impressed. I was impressed as well!
All in all, though both these books were well-written, I much preferred An Abundance of Katherines to Paper Towns. Do I recommend these books? Sure. Especially for people who love road trips. But, personally, I think my YA phase is over—or it was long over some years ago—though I still appreciate and cherish the authors that I loved so much, including John Green. It also felt nostalgic to step inside of the YA section of my local library and borrow these books. It felt even more nostalgic to read the typical YA tropes that I once loved so much.