Book Review: Looking For Alaska
4 out of 5 stars!
Format: Hardback (Library) - YA Contemporary - Goodreads summary:
"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."
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: This story was a quick, easy read, but I found myself growing a little bored, and even stopping for a few weeks around the 70-page mark. I still didn't have a clear picture of Miles' goals and motivations. I didn't know what I, the reader, was following him toward. I like to feel like I'm on the same page with the main character, even if I can't exactly relate to them. I want to understand them. And I never quite understood Miles until the very end.
It all seemed rather mundane until "the big event." Which I can't believe I didn't see coming! It's not hard to figure out, so I didn't include any spoiler warnings here. I know John Greene is a great existential writer, so I can't believe I didn't see the moment coming. I'm not sure if it's because the YA market has changed so much in 12 years (since LFA was originally published), but I'm honestly surprised at how painfully slow the book was! Still, I trudged on and I was REALLY glad I did. It's not your "hook the reader in the first 5 pages" adventure story, but it was quite good. Why 4 whole stars? Keep reading...
SETTING: The setting of a boarding school in Alabama was the perfect stage for a YA novel about self-discovery. I loved the incredibly accurate representation of Southern summers (and winters that feel like summers). I could feel the heat on my back and the sweat on my brow. Green did a masterful job (as always) with weaving in the setting and Mile's world with few descriptors. Powerful, they did just enough to paint the scene while leaving room for my imagination to fill in the gaps. I really appreciate when authors let us do that, and I also tip my hat to Green because THIS IS HARD TO DO Y'ALL.
CHARACTERIZATION: Oh Miles. Where do I begin? He was an interesting main character because he was super internal and existential in the way a lot of 17-year-olds can be. I loved how the narrator and the author wove in thoughts on religion, and without being preachy, taught us something about life and death. Aside from her face, I wasn't sure what drew Miles to Alaska over and over again. She was a serial cheater, smoked liked a chimney, was moody and unpredictable, and obviously had dark issues in her past. Not that those people aren't loveable, but Miles didn't love HER. He loved the way she looked and seemingly nothing else and that bothered me. Was Miles really dumb? Yes. Was he adorably underprepared for life at Culver Creek? Yes. Not sure I'd read another novel where Miles was the narrator because for the first LONG chunk of the book, he seemed a bystander in his own life, and passive MC's bug me. But if that was his arc, cool. Just not my absolute fav.
I'm SUPER sensitive about glorifying dark issues such as teen drug use, depression, suicidal behavior, mental health issues, etc. because I work on a college campus as a therapist for students and I see what it looks like in real life. Up close. Nitty gritty. And there's nothing glorious about it. So my first question of Alaska's character was why wasn't this girl on meds or AT LEAST in therapy?? Even private schools have therapists and not once did anyone mention it. I mean, Alaska's character wouldn't have gone, but shouldn't someone suggest it? She obviously suffered some major trauma and I felt myself getting pretty angry with her "mysterious coolness because she has been through so much" in the same way I got angry at Thirteen Reasons Why. Suicide isn't cool. Leaving behind a mysterious mystery for the poor survivors to figure you out does not make you the hero of a novel. So I kinda hated Alaska, BUT...
I think we were supposed to. Green basically gifts us Takumi because he says what we're all thinking: geez Miles, she flirted with everyone get over yourself. C'mon Miles, so you kissed her, you think that entitles you to a special kind of grief? Get a grip Miles, she wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination so stop pretending she was. So at least we had Takumi.
And The Colonel. He was probably my favorite throughout. He seemed the most real, and balanced his serious side with a good dose of humor and a dash of teenage bullshit. Hiding your vodka in milk?? Typical, desperate teen. But we saw his reality when we went with him for Thanksgiving dinner. We saw where he comes from and the reason behind the visceral hatred of the Weekend Warriors. He was 3D because he was crude at times, played video games too much, drank like a fish, but also wanted to buy his mom a house one day to get her out of their trailer park. Then we saw his determination to honor Alaska, and I think of the entire cast, he actually got her.
I'm not forgetting Lara, she just didn't leave an impression on me and felt more like a plot device than a real, carefully crafted character.
STYLE: I LOVED the back 1/3 of this book. And I might've stopped reading around pg. 70 if I wasn't weirdly loyal to the books I pick up. Seriously, I feel like I have to finish even if it's killing me. I'm weird. In a way, I could tell this was Green's first novel. As I said above, I had no real grip on the main character's wants for the majority of the book. Aside from living it up at a new school literally because he had not friends in public school, I couldn't even get why Miles was there to begin with. His big opening goal of finding The Great Perhaps kind of got lost when he started swooning over Alaska, which happened immediately. I got lost in his obsession with her and couldn't figure out where we were going, which made the whole plot of the book hard to follow. Until "After," there really was no plot.
Jumping back to my sensitive spots with teen suicide, I didn't love how the book totally revolved around "the event." There were no chapters, just a divide between Before and After, and bold paragraph headers telling us the countdown to and from the big event. I kind of hated that it all revolved around that. But when the "After" portion took over, I really saw the style I know and love from John Greene.
And did you know there was another book called Looking For Alaska published in 2001? I didn't. I feel like someone should've caught this.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I wished I hadn't borrowed this from the library because there were entire passages I wanted to underline because they were just so freakin' beautiful. Here's one from pg. 196:
"Because memories fall apart, too. And then you're left with nothing, left not even with a ghost but with its shadow. In the beginning, she had haunted me, haunted my dreams, but even now, just weeks later, she was slipping away, falling apart in my memory and everyone else's, dying again."
Absolutely gorgeous! I'm just floored by how Green could summarize what grief and forgetting feels like in just a few lines. It feels just like that. Your loved one/friend/neighbor/grandparent... it feels like they're dying all over again in your mind with each detail you forget. I remember when I couldn't remember my grandmother's smell anymore. It was awful, and unlike a photograph to remember her face, or an old family VHS to hear her voice, I had nothing to remember her smell. And I grieved all over again that day.
Once I felt the ball was rolling, this book won me over. It bumped up from 3 to 4 stars for the last 70ish pages alone. Great writing, as always, from John Green! I'll always be a fan.