Review: “Looking for Alaska” by John Green

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Looking for Alaska, wildly successful author John Green’s debut novel, is about a Florida high-school student Miles Halter and his foray into what he calls “the great perhaps,” a reference to writer Francois Rabelais’ last words. Before Culver Creek, Miles’s life was boring. No real pain or pleasure seeped into his days; no friends or enemies or challenges of any kind. Culver Creek throws him into a different world, one with all that he lacked before.

His first real friend is Chip, his brilliant white-trash roommate also known as “the Colonel.” Chip heads up the gang of kids that Miles falls in with, the most stunning and hypnotic of these is the gorgeous, sharp, troubled, sweet Alaska Young. Miles and his friends plan elaborate pranks against the “weekend warriors” (the rich kids who commute home every weekend) and the headmaster, eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, struggle to pass pre-calc, and maintain a steady level of drunkenness on strawberry wine and a concoction of milk and vodka dubbed “ambrosia.”

The novel’s chapters are split into “Before” and “After”, which lets you know something dramatic is going to go down (and by the time it happens, you can easily guess what it’s going to be). If you’ve read other John Green books, you know exactly how this book works. Quirky protagonist? Check. Profound lessons learned? Check. Awesome friendships? Check. Cool girl? Check. Personally, whenever I hear the phrase “cool girl”, I am reminded of Gillian Flynn’s spot-on quote from Gone Girl about how there is no such thing as a cool girl.

At this point, I want to talk about my biggest criticism of John Green’s writing. Even though Looking for Alaska is my first Green novel, I am familiar with his overuse of the manic pixie dream girl trope. To those of you who don’t know what it means, a manic pixie dream girl is basically someone that is injected into story lines to teach the male protagonist about life, freedom, love and all things that make one feel alive and connected. This girl thrusts the brooding hero into unfamiliar situations to force the emergence of self-identity in an effort to cope and adapt, confesses the darkness buried in her being of light, makes him feel unique, makes him question life, and gets him to do something completely freeing.

Looking at Alaska Young, it is glaringly obvious that beneath her vivacious facade there’s a troubled teenager dealing with depression. This was an opportunity for Green to really explore the complications of depression among young adults, but ultimately Alaska’s depression gets sidelined as she serves in her obligatory manic pixie dream girl role of helping Miles become a real boy.

I’m not going to say that John Green should have written this story differently, but I am going to say that he had the potential of breaking out of the mold and really exploring the complexities of Alaska Young. Alaska never becomes an actualized character, she always exists as others need her to for the sake of their own development.

As with all the other stories of Green’s, there is a strong literary component that exists as a running theme with the main action of the story. Yet, in Looking for Alaska, I felt that it was forced and tacked on in an effort to imbue some greater sense of meaning that could have just come from allowing an exploration of the full character of Alaska Young. Miles is desperately in love with Alaska and she is desperately in love with her college-aged boyfriend, except when she doesn’t want to be – then she lets loose and embraces spontaneity over commitment. Conveniently.

Miles has an interesting character quirk in that he is a collector of final words. He and Alaska have a conversation in which she mentions her fascination with Simon Bolivar’s final words: “Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” And so ensues a pseudo-philosophical and spiritual quest to uncover what the labyrinth is and how one can escape it. The quote holds meaning for Alaska, the kind of meaning that is worth concern if anyone knows anything about depression. And this once again leads me to the loss of potential for Green to really expose this underbelly of depression; how it impacts not only the individual who is depressed, but also everyone around that person.

The message at the end of Looking for Alaska is actually something I really appreciated. However, I just couldn’t really make myself care about any of these characters, or the plot for that matter. I know a lot of people love this novel, and I know this is John Green’s first book, which entitles him to some wiggle room I guess, but I just can’t help comparing it to other, better YA stories. Maybe Green’s brand of realistic fiction just isn’t for me. If it wasn’t my second book of the year, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have finished it. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but I couldn’t help feeling bored with the same old teenage drama that took up the majority of this book.

Overall, if you enjoy the sort of YA contemporary literature that is inevitably made into a teeny-bopper movie, and you’ve somehow skipped this book—I think you will find Looking for Alaska enjoyable. As for me, I don’t think I’ll be checking out any more of John Green’s books until he writes something new. This one just wasn’t my cup of tea.

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2 thoughts on “Review: “Looking for Alaska” by John Green

  1. Really nice review! The only John Green book I’ve read is (predictably enough) The Fault in our Stars. I must say that his love of teen characters waxing poetic like middle-aged pseudo intellectuals really got on my nerves, so I’m not so inclined to read any more of his work. But as an avid reader of teen fiction and a lover of all things “coming of age” I’m not going to check out of the John Green frenzy completely. He might surprise us yet!

    Like

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