Four years ago, I was wrapping up my first semester of teaching and coaching, headed to a league track meet that would be the end of our middle school season. The eighth grade students on my team wouldn’t be at school much longer, and the girls had been hounding me for weeks to read this newly popular YA novel called The Fault in Our Stars. I’d never heard of John Green, and I hadn’t a clue what the premise of the novel was, but I knew I had to finish it before the girls graduated or I’d be just another teacher that didn’t listen to their reading recommendations. So I made the dumbest decision of my teaching career to date: I borrowed the book from Lourdes, hunkered down in a brown faux-leather seat, and started reading. The trip was two hours one way, and I figured I could knock out a good portion.
Fast forward seven hours: the track meet is over, I’m icing what I’m certain is a torn meniscus (#coachprobs), and a herd of middle school students is hovering on all sides as I furiously attempt to stop tears from rolling down my cheeks while I finish the damn book. Guys, I ugly cried in front of thirty-seven boys and girls for a half hour. A HALF HOUR. Like I said — not my finest teaching decision.
So, anyway, after I was scarred by the traumatic events that day, I kind of avoided Green’s works though I knew him to be widely praised. I couldn’t even watch the movie adaptation of TFIOS — really, I mean, who would want to experience that kind of emotional trauma a second time? — and I wasn’t in any hurry to pick up another of his novels.
When our local bookstore went out of business, though, I picked up a hardcover copy of Looking for Alaska for a few bucks and finally committed to reading it this month. As with TFIOS, I had a few gripes that I’ll outline below; but overall, it was a pretty good YA read.
Synopsis: Looking for Alaska is a story about an outsider high school student from Florida who is obsessed with the last words of famous people. Miles, who later earns the nickname “Pudge,” has a sort of knack, actually, for memorizing the last words of former presidents, military generals, authors, and other people of import. Hell bent on finding his “Great Perhaps” before the end of his life, Miles applies to a boarding school in Mississippi that his father attended as a high school student. Once he’s been accepted and moved in, Miles quickly makes friends with his roommate — tough guy Chip “The Colonel” Martin — and Alaska Young, a beautiful enigma admired by many. He also grows close to Takumi and Lara, minor characters that round out the fivesome that finds its way into some pretty tight situations involving firecrackers, cigarettes, pornography, and much more. As Miles works his way through his first year at Culver Creek, he finds himself striving to not do a number of things: get expelled, let Alaska discover his unrequited love for her, fail World Religions. His quest for the Great Perhaps may be a bit more finicky than he anticipated, but Miles is no quitter.
The story is a study in a number of deep themes: hope after loss, finding meaning in life, surviving the transition to adulthood. When approached from a thematic standpoint, the novel really has a lot to offer and would make a great exploration of life, loss, and choices for high school reading groups/English classes. That being said, this novel is also highly controversial . . . because parents are certain that reading a book that mentions — gasp! — sex and drug use (alcohol and tobacco) is somehow more damaging than watching things like slasher films and trashy television shows. I know — I’m scratching my head, too.
The Good: I really, really appreciated this novel’s thematic basis. I felt like Green had a few meaningful points to make and he didn’t overextend himself in the writing of this novel. As always, I’m fascinated by novels about children who go to boarding school (this has been a lifelong obsession of mind, not really sure why?), so I also particularly relished that aspect of the work.
The Not-So-Good: As with TFIOS (and some other YA I’ve read recently, not by Green), I rolled my eyes more than a few times at the adultishness (new word, hit me up Merriam-Webster) of the teenage characters’ language. I realize that there are some very intelligent young adults roaming the earth, y’all, but I feel like Green (and Yoon and Niven) sometimes gets carried away with character dialogue, which results in pretentious-sounding teenagers. Add to this my annoyance with Miles, who somehow manages to get into a prestigious boarding school but — as a high school junior — has never heard of Robert Frost, doesn’t know the difference between end and slant rhyme, and has no clue that Macedonia is a country. I’m sorry — What? I don’t buy it for a minute.
The Verdict: 3 stars. High school me probably would have enjoyed this impactful-but-highly-dramatic story; adult me was kind of just like, eh, it was okay.