“When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.”
I should have known the sort of writing to expect from John Green after reading The Fault In Our Stars, but Looking For Alaska still completely knocked me for six. I started reading expecting some light entertainment about a boy’s adventures at boarding school, but this book goes much deeper than that. It’s emotional; John Green has an uncanny knack of making me feel for and miss his characters as if they were genuine friends.
The story is about Miles Halter, aka. Pudge, a lonely, skinny 16-year old who has few friends in his hometown. He is obsessed with memorising famous people’s last words, and inspired by François Rabelais’s last words; “I go to seek a Great Perhaps”, he decides to search for his own Great Perhaps and start anew at Culver Creek Boarding School.
School-life is as clique-y as you’d expect, with the main divide being between the ‘weekend warriors’ (the rich kids who commute and go home every weekend) and those who stay full time at the boarding school. There’s plenty of one-upmanship between the rival groups, and playing pranks on each other and the teachers is a regular part of the boarding school life. There’s a really nice, light-hearted atmosphere near the beginning of the novel, as Pudge settles into life at the school and finds his first real friends in the full-time boarders. There’s The Colonel, his extremely intelligent but slightly unhinged roommate, quirky Takumi, the lovely Lara from Hungary and Alaska – “the hottest girl in the world”.
From the moment he sets eyes on her, Miles is falling hard for Alaska. She’s gorgeous, she’s a little wild, and at one point Miles reflects: “I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”
I’ve seen some reviewers who struggled to understand the way Alaska is put on a pedestal, but I don’t think that she is supposed to be perfect; she’s just seen through the rose-tinted glasses of a boy with his first big crush. She’s actually pretty similar to any teenage girl; she’s angsty and complicated, just beginning to discover alcohol and sex and going a little overboard. But she’s an interesting character too – intelligent and multi-layered, and as the story goes on Green reveals a darkness in her past which helps the reader understand her better.
The only criticism I would have about her and other characters in the story is that there is a lot of banding around quotes from famous poems, last words and famous novels – almost intelligence purely for intelligence’s sake. It felt a tiny bit pretentious at times. This may not be down to the writer but more the characters though – I can imagine that some of the teenagers at at an elite boarding school could behave this way.
The story is really a tale of two halves; it begins ‘one hundred and thirty-six days’ before and each chapter counts down. Even throughout the fun times as friendships are forged, there’s a sense of menace lurking and I was dying to know what it was all building up to. Then the ‘After’ hit and, as the blurb states, nothing is ever the same again.
This book was completely unexpected, and it’s quite difficult to review as revealing the one crucial event which takes place part way through the book would completely spoil the story for those who haven’t read it. The entire atmosphere and tone of the book changes, and while it may seem like Miles is growing up as he discovers new things in the first half of the novel, he and his friends get a much more brutal awakening in the second half. There’s a lot of books which are described as ‘coming-of-age’, but this novel probably encapsulates the phrase more than any other I’ve ever read. It didn’t quite live up to TFIOS for me, but I’d still highly recommend it.