Looking for Alaska by John Green


One day I’m going to put together an anthology of John Green’s three novels, and it will be titled “Hot Bipolar Girls and the Boys Who Worship Them.”

This is the third John Green book I’ve read so far, and the patterns are starting to appear.  In every book (An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, and Looking for Alaska) our hero is a slightly awkward but likable young man who has some quirky obsession and quirky friends. He meets a girl, who is your typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl, except on crack. Boy obsesses over Girl, Girl does not give much of a damn. Girl is impulsive and difficult to understand and shows many signs of being mentally unbalanced, but Boy does not care because she is hot. Story continues in this vein for a while, and then Girl goes totally off the rails, all hell breaks loose, and Boy is left to pick up the pieces and continue worshipping Girl, although not quite in the same way he did before.

John Green certainly has a thing for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, but at least the extremes vary depending on which of his books you’re reading. Katherine I is mostly normal, although still a constant source of mystery and worship. Margot Roth Speigleman is Alaska Young on medication. And Alaska Young is…well. I’ve been trying to think of some mythical figure I can compare her to (there’ve got to be a million myths about beautiful women who bring destruction, right?) and the best I can come up with is actually from Peter Pan. Remember the mermaids? They’re beautiful and fascinating and mysterious, and they draw you in with their singing. But the second you get close to them, they grab you and drag you under the water and drown you. Alaska Young is a mermaid. She’s impulsive and fun and sexy and confident, and then as soon as anyone starts feeling comfortable with her, suddenly she becomes sullen or furious or cruel. Miles, the Awkward But Likeable Quirky Boy, doesn’t even try to resist her. He falls, hard, for Alaska and bravely endures her ups and downs, and he suffers for it along with everyone else who was foolish enough to fall in love with her. She stubbornly remains a mystery throughout the book, refusing to explain her actions or moods, and this continues to the moment when she drives off campus, drunk and raging, and ends up driving her car straight into a police car (the siren was on, the lights flashing) that was parked on the highway at an accident site. She is killed instantly, and even after her death Miles and his friends continue to be consumed by her.

The book is divided into two parts – before Alaska’s death, and after. Based on the reviews I’ve read, everyone seems to like the Before better, but I disagree. I like the After, mostly because I couldn’t stand Alaska, but also because I think the writing gets better in the After part. The thing I love about John Green (and the reason this gets five stars, despite my griping) is the way he writes about emotions. That sounds silly, but it’s true – he understands fear and pain and grief better than almost any author I’ve ever read, and it’s always heartbreakingly beautiful when he writes about them. In my review of Paper Towns I quoted a brilliant paragraph he wrote about fear, and in Looking for Alaska it’s grief:

“I am staring at the ground beneath me. I cannot stop thinking that she is dead, and I cannot stop thinking that she cannot possibly be dead. People do not just die. I can’t catch my breath. I feel afraid, like someone has told me they’re going to kick my ass after school and now it’s sixth period and I know full well what’s coming. It is so cold today – literally freezing – and I imagine running to the creek and diving in headfirst, the creek so shallow that my hands scrape against the rocks, and my body slides into the cold water, the shock of the cold giving way to numbness, and I would stay there…”

That’s the stuff I love about this book – the aftermath of the destruction Alaska wreaks. In all the Before sections, it just felt like the characters were stalling for time, waiting for that inevitable disaster to happen. Once it does, I suddenly became completely invested in the book and decided that I needed to give it five stars.

“…one thing I learned from science classes is that energy is never created and never destroyed. And if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, forgetting her friends and herself – those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be. 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 thinks that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”

Verdict: five out of five stars


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