Author: John Green
Published: March 3, 2005
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Rating: 3 stars
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“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.”My Thoughts
― John Green, Looking for Alaska
Before. Miles "Pudge" Halter's whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the "Great Perhaps" (François Rabelais, poet) even more. Then he heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, 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, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.
After. Nothing is ever the same. (Goodreads)
I first heard about John Green my freshman year of college. A friend of mine sang his praises, and I was so intrigued, I immediately added Looking for Alaska to my book collection. And I have finally read it more than four years later. Why did I wait so long? Who knows? The lesson to learn from this story: buy books and actually read them before they gather dust or you might be missing out on a great book for way too long. And while I did have a couple of issues with this book, Looking for Alaska was still that great book, and it was an enjoyable read filled with touching, emotional scenes.
In Looking for Alaska, we follow Miles, who also goes by the nickname "Pudge," as he heads off to boarding school with the hopes of finding his "Great Perhaps." Pudge is obsessed with famous last words. If you name a president, general, writer, or any famous person who croaked, the odds are high that he'll have their last words memorized. I loved this quirk of his, and reading Looking for Alaska almost persuaded me to pick up a book of famous last words like this delightfully grim collection. Pudge is inspired to make something of his life when he reads the last words of the French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais:
"I go to seek a Great Perhaps"
Pudge realizes that he doesn't want to wait until he's dead to find his "Great Perhaps." He wants to discover it now. And, apparently, he believes that boarding school is his ticket to that Great Perhaps. Why boarding school and not a life spent in the wilderness like Into the Wild or unraveling a town mystery like in Golden? I'm not entirely sure. But I think he does want to get away from the life he's lived and the friends he's known and start over fresh. Which is exactly what he does in Looking for Alaska.
I have to appreciate the irony of the title Looking for Alaska because I still feel like I'm searching for her. In this book, this group of teenagers drink, smoke, pull pranks and fool around in order to forget the bigger pressures and troubles of the real world. But they also discover more about each other and grow to rely on each other for comfort, so they know they're not alone when they need companionship the most. There's a whole bunch of poignant moments, where Pudge and his friends contemplate life and death. Philosophical questions are raised and Looking for Alaska broaches some meaningful topics. While I started the book thinking the enigma that is Alaska would be figured out by the end, that was far from the case. I have finished this book, feeling like I know Alaska less than I did when I began. But for some reason, this doesn't bother me because sometimes puzzles remain, well, puzzling. This ambiguity may unsettle some, and that's understandable, but I found it intriguing.
What I loved most about Looking for Alaska is how the book is divided into Before and After. So, even before you start the book, you know something's going to go down that requires this separation of events. Before and after what? The intensity gradually builds, along with Pudge's attraction to Alaska. Even though I had a strong feeling about what was going to happen, I still wasn't fully prepared for it when it did. By splitting the book into Before and After sections, the reader is more profoundly struck by how everything can change in an instant. Suddenly, everything is categorized as before or after some huge, life-changing moment. Change is inevitable, but how you adapt to these changes defines who you are as an individual. And I have to say that Pudge really grew as a person by the end, and I loved seeing that progression.
While I was crazy for the writing in Looking For Alaska, I was not a fan of the characters. As with The Fault in Our Stars, the characters in this book acted way older than they actually were. Pudge, Alaska, the Colonel and just everyone did not say what I would expect teenagers to say at all. I loved their oddities and their love for video games. The Colonel and Alaska had a rough past, and I sympathized, but I found it difficult to connect with these characters when they weren't entirely believable. Their personalities were so overdone, and I could not imagine teenagers who were so well-read and constantly quoting intellectual figures. And I almost forgot Alaska was a teenager because she sounded like a messed up adult with serious issues. She liked to drink way too much, and when someone mentions how much she smokes, she says:
"Y'all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die."
Whoa. This girl needs mental help asap. Alaska is obviously unhinged, but no one does anything about it. I found this hard to believe. Here's a teenage girl who is drunk half of the time and regularly freaks out for no apparent reason, and no one thinks that she might need help? Maybe, they were all in denial and choosing to ignore her behavior, but I didn't completely buy it, given that they recognized she wasn't acting normal and even point this out to others.
I also found it hard to believe how little work these students have at a boarding school. I didn't attend boarding school, but I'd imagine the workload to be heavier than it seemed to be in Looking for Alaska. Every once and awhile, someone would be reading a book for class, but I felt like they had way too much free time and there seemed to be a lack of authority on the campus. There was one person mentioned who disciplined them, but I felt like the rules would have been more enforced. I might be over thinking things, but this leniency seemed odd to me. And what was up with the conflict between the richer kids and the Colonel and his crew? It seemed like it was going to be this big deal, but it fell kind of flat for me after nothing serious even happened. I didn't really detect the antagonism between them like I thought I would.
This is the second John Green book I've read, and I definitely enjoy reading his work. It was a difficult book to review because it left me feeling genuinely perplexed, but I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, no matter how long I let this book settle. Looking for Alaska might not be a new favorite, but it was a thought-provoking, gripping read that kept me entertained. I would recommend it to any YA contemporary fans, especially those who have enjoyed a Green book in the past.