Book Talk: *Looking for Alaska*, by John Green

Looking for Alaska [Paperback] by Green, John
Looking for Alaska
John Green
Speak/Penguin (2006), Paperback (ISBN 0142402516 / 9780142402511)
Fiction (YA), 256 pages
Source: Personal/purchased copy
Reason for reading: None in particular; new-to-me author, but a book-blogger favorite

Opening lines: “The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically.”

Book description: Before. Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . . After. Nothing is ever the same.

Comments: I never went to boarding school, so I don’t know this personally, but are elaborate pranks an essential part of the experience? Between …Frankie Landau-Banks and John Green’s Looking for Alaska, I’m getting the impression they might be. But there’s a lot more to both of these novels than practical jokes. I never would never have guessed that Looking for Alaska was John Green’s first novel; it’s also my first novel by John Green, but it won’t be my last. I definitely get the book-blogger love for this author now!

Miles Halter – a tall, skinny high-school junior soon to be better known as “Pudge” – is reasonably happy to transfer to the Alabama boarding school his dad attended, since he doesn’t feel like he’s leaving much behind in central Florida. The classes at Culver Creek make him work harder than he’s used to, but he’s surprisingly fascinated by his World Religions class and its ancient teacher, Dr. Hyde. Even more fascinating are the new friends he’s making; he’s not exactly a big hit socially, but he becomes part of a small group that includes two of the school’s underground leaders, his roommate Chip “the Colonel” Martin and dorm neighbor Alaska Young. Miles has never known anyone like this appealing girl, with beauty, brains, an unpredictably moody nature, a roomful of books, a fake ID that yields contraband cigarettes and alcohol…and a college boyfriend that puts her out of reach as anything more than a friend, but he’ll take it.

This novel defied my expectations in a few respects. I really thought I’d be annoyed by Alaska – I thought she’d be the sort of magnetically, influentially quirky girl that men seem to write about more than women do, as she hovers on the edge of fantasy – but I wasn’t. The novel hinges on her, and she really needs to draw the reader as much as she does Miles; Green made that happen, at least for me. As it happens, I found all of the main characters vivid and appealing, and I really enjoyed their story. As I said, it wasn’t all pranks and hijinks; while there’s no shortage of humor in the storytelling, some themes are treated quite seriously. School itself is one of them, and Miles – who narrates the novel in first person – mentions studying quite often. 

Looking for Alaska is an intelligent novel that rings emotionally true; it’s a fun read, but not a shallow one. There’s a noticeable and entirely appropriate shift in tone in the latter third of the story, and it enhances the story’s effect. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like this book; I liked it a lot, and will definitely be reading more of John Green’s fiction. Paper Towns is already in the TBR stacks.

Rating: 4/5

This qualifies for the Read Your Own Books Challenge (ROYB 2010) (17/20)

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