It seems with John Green I’ve approached his written work in reverse – I started out with his brilliant work The Fault In Our Stars, which long time readers will remember was my favourite book from last year, and only this year, on a plane to Sweden, did I finally read his debut novel, Looking For Alaska. I’ll discuss how this in itself affected my perception of the book a little later, but first I want to discuss Green’s debut on its own merits.
I’ll start off by saying that for me, Looking For Alaska, a young adult fiction novel of just over 200 pages, is a 5 star novel. The main character, Miles Halter, quickly nicknamed Pudge by his room mate The Colonel, begins the novel by leaving his Florida home to attend a Preparatory High School in Alabama, and we learn of his passion for famous last words, in particular those of Francois Rabelais: “I go to seek a great perhaps”. Before long, Pudge is introduced to a friend of The Colonel’s, Alaska Young, and then the story really takes off, both in plot and character development.
The book is divided into a Before and After, with a mysterious but pivotal event (which I won’t reveal and which you must not skip ahead to when you read the book because that’s silly and you’ll ruin it for yourself) separating the two. Naturally, Alaska Young is at the centre of said pivotal event, as the title of the book perhaps suggests, and no doubt you’ll spend the first half guessing what it might be, and the second half reeling in the aftermath of it all, along with the characters themselves. Because of this structure, the plot is quite simple, and the theme, which is hard to reveal without spoiling the story, is also one which is addressed quite head on and in a style that we have later come to expect from Green.
But, as with The Fault In Our Stars, it is the characters that are the stand-out of Looking For Alaska. Many of the characters you just feel sorry for, particularly Pudge and his constantly unrequited feelings towards Alaska, but also The Colonel once you start to see all the aspects of his life. But while the main character might be Pudge, the story does revolve just as much around Alaska, and she herself is an utterly fascinating character – volatile, unpredictable, fierce, and self-destructive, yet lovable and loved by those around her. Most importantly, she is a deeply layered character, and we find ourselves as readers trying to pierce through her complexity right up until the end of the story, much like her friends within the novel. As I read this, I found myself thinking that everybody has had at least one Alaska Young in their lives, at least one friend or person who was similar to her, and if we had this friend when we were younger, in our teens like these characters, we probably also didn’t know how to handle them. I sure know I didn’t at that age. And that is something John Green is so good at – getting under our skin by talking about truths that are so universal and yet feel so personal and intimate.
So, as I said, I gave this 5 stars. I also gave The Fault In Our Stars 5 stars, but, really, if I could, I’d give the latter 6 stars. While Looking For Alaska is a good novel, and an amazing debut novel, it is still clearly a first book, and John Green’s ability to weave a tale, his way of exploring characters and all their humanity, and his knack for making confronting topics so real and accessible – these are all things that developed considerably by the time he wrote The Fault In Our Stars. Looking For Alaska is a great novel, but The Fault In Our Stars is a masterpiece. And yet, I am glad I read them in the order I did, as I feel I can appreciate that aspect of Looking For Alaska – watching an amazing writer finding his feet already, and knowing where he will go with his voice in the coming years.
I now need to keep working through Green’s books. Next on the agenda is Paper Towns, mostly because it’s the only other one I have and as many of you know I am on a serious book ban at the moment. But I have heard differing opinions about this one, so I am quite curious!
What are your thoughts about Looking For Alaska, and John Green as an author in general?