I recently got around to reading John Green’s PAPER TOWNS and Scott Westerfeld’s UGLIES. Why did I wait so long? Two very different YA novels--one dystopian, the other contemporary. In surprising ways, both explore personal image and misconstrued perceptions.
PAPER TOWNS—part mystery, part coming of age, part crazy road trip--is meant to be explored, layers peeling back as you go. It’s smart, witty and unnerving.
Green dragged me unwillingly through the first part of the book. Not because it wasn’t well-written but because the character Margo made me anxious. I worried about what she was going to get Quentin, the first-person narrator, into. And that’s the point. She’s not easy, but she sure is fascinating.
Margo is bigger than life, walking the edge, and perceived by her classmates as magnificently fearless and cool. Some significant revelations and changes take place in both characters during the story, but I won’t give spoilers.
A nerdfighter stuck a post-it inside the PAPER TOWNS I purchased in a bookstore. I’d heard that some of Green’s followers were doing this, but I looked when I bought it and didn’t find a note. Then when I was half-way through reading, I untucked a page stuck in the jacket flap and there it was! The discovered note added to the experience of reading a mysterious, thought-provoking story.
One thing I love about Green’s writing (also evident in LOOKING FOR ALASKA) is that his young adult characters have substance. They read, they contemplate, they have conversations and still care about important teen stuff like the opposite sex.
In PAPER TOWNS, Quentin believes Margo left him a clue within the lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” He studies it over and over, looking for a breadcrumb trail to where she’s gone. And the novel’s title, too, is worth pondering. It refers to developments that never get built, to towns that exist only on paper.
Here’s a sample, which I hope whets your appetite:
And so we sat there, she with her nail polish balanced on the dash, and me with a shaky finger on the pulse of myself. It was a good color of nail polish, and Margo had nice fingers, thinner and bonier than the rest of her, which was all curves and soft edges. She had the kind of fingers you want to interlace with your own. I remembered them against my hip bone in Wal-Mart, which felt like days ago. My heartbeat slowed. And I tried to tell myself, Margo’s right. There’s nothing out here to be afraid of, not in this little city on this quiet night.
Westerfeld tackles body image and plastic surgery in a bold way in UGLIES. In this future world, everybody gets an extreme transformation from ugly (as in all of us) to picture-perfect pretty when they turn sixteen. Tally can’t wait, especially since her best friend’s birthday came before hers and he’s already gone to live in New Pretty Town.
Once again, I don’t want to give spoilers, but one of the things I appreciate as a writer and reader is the clear structure of this novel. It’s divided in parts like a play in three acts. Each part has a title and an accompanying quote that is spot on. So I’m going to share that much.
“Is it not good to make society full of beautiful people?”—Yang Yuan, quoted in The New York Times
“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”—Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral, “Of Beauty”
Into the Fire
“Beauty is that Medusa’s head
Which men go armed to seek and sever.
It is most deadly when most dead,
And dead will stare and sting forever.”—Archibald MacLeish, “Beauty”
Yeah. These are great reads. Let’s hear it for the guys.
Addendum: There's a contest going on at Wen's On Words and Upwards that you don't want to miss. Signed copies of Helen Lowe's books, and--horse lover alert--a gorgeous drawing of a horse by Wen, who is an artist as well as a writer. Gallop on over!