Public high school in Florida has been uneventful for Miles Halter. When he’s not satisfying his craving for famous last words, he’s studying and hanging out with his small circle of friends and trying to forget the dates he’s not going on and the girlfriends he’s never had. Taking a cue from the last words of the poet Francois Rabelais, Miles yearns for a “Great Perhaps”. So he transfers to the elite Culver Creek Boarding School in the deep south of Birmingham, Alabama. There Miles becomes fast friends with his roommate Chip “the Colonel”, whose life easily surpasses his wildest ideas of eventful living. The Colonel seems to have it all: a brilliant mind, colorful language, a contentious girlfriend, and the ability to smoke up a storm and drink almost anyone under the table. He immediately gives scrawny Miles the nickname “Pudge” and introduces him to perhaps the only person who can out-do him: the beautiful, smart, moody, and mischievous Alaska Young. Suddenly his life is full of danger, love, and many “firsts”. But just as quickly as hiding contraband and pulling pranks becomes normal, his new life is shattered and Miles feels farther away than ever from the Great Perhaps.
I’m so glad that I finally got around to reading this, especially after considering giving it a go off and on for the past couple of years. First of all, I’d like to confess some funny misassumptions I made during that time. As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s almost impossible not to have heard of John Green if you read any YA. And this award-winning book has been ubiquitous to the shelves of libraries and bookstores everywhere since it was published in 2005. With only the title to go off when I saw it, my mind conjured images of Alaska – the vast, cold, northern STATE – and a “looking” story that took place within the Alaskan wilderness. Misassumption #1. Yeah, embarrassing, especially since I was under this incredibly false first impression for about as long as it’s been in print. (So that’s what the blurbs on book jackets are for!?)
On to Misassumption #2. It had a shorter shelf life, but may be even more embarrassing because it occurred with a lot more awareness of what the book was about. Having read Paper Towns, I was familiar with the Greenian mysterious, beautiful, and unattainable girl; the geeky average infatuated guy; and the big mystery to solve/missing person to find. I had also read many, many book reviews that mentioned without specifying the character/plot similarities between Green’s books. So keeping the latter in mind and going with the literal and obvious as the title seemed to suggest, I confidently assumed that I knew what this book was about. Boy was I surprised to find that both the “looking” and the “Alaska” in question were fundamentally different than the search Quentin undertakes to find Margo in Paper Towns.
So after finally reading Looking for Alaska, I feel pretty satisfied, especially with the second half of the book entitled “after”. I loved the idea of the labyrinth and the Great Perhaps, and how they tie into the most excellent World Religion class at Culver Creek. (I want to take that class!) There was a key plot reveal that I guessed beforehand, but for the most part I found myself pleasantly misassuming the moves and fates of the characters.
Speaking of the characters, I really connected to them in this one. Alaska is broken, but endearing. Pudge is the average high-achieving, conforming teen but one who’s willing to take risks. The Colonel is the screwed-up, poor kid but not without hopes and dreams and the potential to make them come true. Even Takumi and Lara were just as real and developed as the dysfunctional threesome. Without much experience of my own to compare it to, their experience of grief, loss and forgiveness seems authentic. The truths they learn are profound and universal.
Lastly, I don’t usually mention content, and I’ve read many a book like it before, but this is not a “gentle” read. Lots of language and graphic sexuality. I’m not sure if I missed out or was lucky to miss what I’m told is the reality of teen life, but I wouldn’t have minded its omission in the first half of the book. It’s unfortunate because I anticipate that I’ll be recommending Paper Towns out of Green’s books rather than its better predecessor. But if you can get past it, you should give it a go. Overall a thought-provoking and bittersweet read.