Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Title: Looking for Alaska
Author: John Green
Publisher: Penguin
Date Published: December 28th, 2006

Description (from Goodreads):

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.

Spoiler Alert: The remainder of the review will feature spoilers. 

I didn't like this book. I know, I know. It gets a ton of great reviews, and people love it. I had a difficult time getting through it, so let me tell you why. 

The Nicknames: The Beast. The Colonel. The Eagle. The Weekday Warriors. Pudge. It seems every character in the book has a nickname -- Alaska isn't even her real name -- and it all feels too fake. I mean, I get the propensity for teens to use nicknames, but when everyone in the book is running around with monikers, let alone very boring ones-- did John Green find a noun in the dictionary and put a 'The' in front of it? -- it loses a sense of realism. To some degree, the nicknames make sense; they serve as a way for the characters to mask their true identities, their flawed selves -- a new name, a new persona. Despite this, the names simply fell flat and take away from the story more than they add.  

The Characters: Much of Looking for Alaska's appeal stems from its focus on flawed characters. I was excited to see how Green developed these characters and what exactly their flaws were, but I never was able to feel empathy for any of the characters, instead finding them annoying.

Miles is extremely apathetic and takes on a very passive role -- everything seems to happen to him and he never has true control over any of his actions. In fact, he seems to be just as much an observer in his own life as I am (I couldn't help but think of Bartleby the Scrivener while reading this book). He overly romanticizes Alaska, the embodiment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and despite his own claim to growing and changing as a result of meeting her and attending the charter school, I find it hard to believe he's changed much at all. He ultimately comes to terms with Alaska's death, but he remains equally powerless by the end of the book; perhaps this development was internal, but it is never played out or explored. 

And then there is Alaska. She's the most flawed character in a book about flawed characters, and, frankly, that's why so many people love this book; however, her shtick is too overplayed and uninteresting for me. She's the beautiful yet mysterious girl, the girl everyone fawns over, but who no one really knows. Her traumatic past, perhaps the most developed aspect of her character, hangs over her head, leading to her sudden mood swings and suicide, but I have a difficult time using her past to justify her destructive behavior. Pudge seems to confuse Alaska's dark past and detrimental behavior for quirkiness, and that is problematic. Alaska's self-destructive tendencies often affect others, bordering on abuse (e.g. cheating on her boyfriend, pranking), and I have a hard time truly feeling empathy for her character. 

The Dialogue: Usually characters make or break a book for me, but my biggest knock on this book is the dialogue. Much of the back-and-forth seems forced, but it is mostly just boring. Take this encounter for instance:  
I am concussed,” I announced, entirely sure of my self-diagnosis.
“You’re fine,” Takumi said as he jogged back toward me. 
“Let’s get out of here before we’re killed.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I can’t get up. I have suffered a mild concussion.”
Lara ran out and sat down next to me. “Are you okay?”
“I am concussed,” I said. 
This reads very clunky and just too unrealistic, and though not all of the dialogue is this bad, it certainly captures my general feeling about it. Still, there are still a handful of fantastic lines, the kinds you see on Tumblr and Pinterest, but the bulk of the novel was simply, boring, too unrealistic, and not very fun. 

I hoped for the book to pick up following Alaska's death, but the After section just made it all the more confusing. It starts as a romance, but shifts dramatically to a suicide-mystery, one that feels amateur and lacks any real denouement. 

While I certainly applaud John Green's attempt to write about flawed characters in Looking for Alaska, the characters and dialogue didn't work for me, leading to a overall mediocre read. I'm still planning on reading more John Green moving forward (I'm looking at you, The Fault in Our Stars), and I hope I find them to be more enjoyable than this one.  

Rating: 2/5 Stars

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