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Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

 Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Francois Rebelais. He was this poet, says Miles Halter. And his last words were I go to seek a Great Perhaps. Thats why Im going. So I dont have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.

Miles Halters going away party to celebrate his move to boarding school is attended by two people. Thats not to say that Miles is necessarily unpopular. Hes just not the sort of person who registers with others. Hes almost a blank slate of a person in many ways, someone who exists as a reflection of others, someone whos reactive. Even the personality quirk to which he clingshis fondness for the last words of famous peopleis almost desperately contrived. Its almost an SOS, a flag to wave to keep him from being swept out completely into the sea of ordinariness.

Fortunately, Miles roommate, the posturing, awkward Colin (The Colonel), promptly draws him into a friendship circle of not-quite-outcasts, not-quite-rebels. Theyre kids who are just different enough to stand apart from the privilege and entitlement of the schools day students. Together, theyre a group who hit all of the flailing insecurities of being a teenager, and for Miles theyre someone. I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.

For Miles, the brightest spark of the group is Alaska Young. If people were rain, I was a drizzle and she was a hurricane, he says. Alaska is intelligent, angry, beautiful, and very, very volatile. She rails against characterisation, throwing perceptions and misconceptions back in the faces of everyone around her, showing just how much other people can so easily become our own creations. You love the girl who makes you laugh and shows you porn and drinks wine with you. You dont love the crazy, sullen bitch, she says to Miles at one point. And Miles agrees. Hes all too aware that the respect and engagement he feels towards her is undermined by the fact that hes attracted to her. And perhaps its that Alaska is so beautiful that she can get away with being vulnerable and troubled. After all, its a persistent trope in our world. Its okay to be broken as long as its on the inside. Beauty is compensatory.

But Alaska is also a challenge to Miles on another level. She takes his search for the Great Beyond and raises it a notch. Simon Bolivars last words, she says, were: How will I ever get out of this labyrinth? So what is the labyrinth? Its a puzzle that haunts Miles, even when Alaska explains to him that: Its not life or death, the labyrinth.[it's about] sufferingdoing wrong and having wrong things happen to you.Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. Perhaps it haunts him even more after this, in fact. After all, according to Buddhism, suffering is necessarily a part of life. Its only with enlightenment that we escape it.

But then the book takes a turn, and Miles finds himself thinking about so many things. The Great Beyond and its purpose and meaning; the labyrinth and the same; and even his own interest in peoples last words, which becomes painfully relevant. A lot of time people die how they liveLast words tell me a lot about who people were, and why they became the sort of people biographies get written about. And of course, he finds himself struggling with plenty more on a more human, individual level. Is it ever possible to really know anyone? Do we re-write the biographies of people because we want to honour their memories, or perhaps make ourselves feel better about who we are? Why do we seek to own someone else?

Looking for Alaska is more than the snarky, quirky teen angst romp fest its first half positions it to be, and this certainly explains the awards slathered all over its cover. Still, if Im to be honest, it took me a long time to connect with any of the characters in this book, and I think a given readers enjoyment of it will largely hinge on whether they identify with or can sympathise with the characters of Miles and Alaskawhich I didnt. There are scenes that do ground these too-witty, too-quirky charactersthe dinner at the Colonels mothers trailer, for example, is heart-breaking. But though theres a lot of thematic depth here, I personally found the characters a bit too high-gloss and perfectly imperfect to identify with, and that affected my reading experience quite profoundly.

Between Miless dead guy quoting habit, The Colonels obsession with memorising place names, Alaskas endless empty references to the patriarchy, and Takumis habit of breaking into rap, it all gets a bit much, and I couldnt help but feel that the characters didnt quite rise above their quirks. The book is reliant on the sudden shift between the before and after sections to undermine its characters posturing angst, but given that the after section occurs more than half-way through the book, it does feel a long way coming. Of course, Im sure that others will feel differently depending on how well they connected with Miles and the others from the books early stages.

Though it didnt quite resonate with me as much as Id hoped, Looking for Alaska is certainly a thought-provoking book. The changes in the characters as they grow from spending their nights smoking and drinking and being angsty to something thats far deeper and more worthy are memorable. We watch them go from living for themselves to living for other people. We see them re-evaluate their own positions in their lives and their worlds, and what it means to be part of something. And who can resist the books closing quote, from Thomas Edison? Its very beautiful over there. One can only hope.

 Rating: star Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Greenstar Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Greenstar Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Greenblankstar Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Greenblankstar Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green (good)

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See also our list of books set in boarding schools

Other books by John Green:

 Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green


  1. Good review, even if I dont agree :P sorry you didnt love this book as much as I did.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Michael! I really went in expecting to absolutely adore this oneeveryone says great things about it, and it was lent to me by a friend whose tastes are usually very similar to minebut I just felt a little bit underwhelmed for some reason. I couldnt shake the feeling that the characters were playing roles, and all the snappy dialogue and quirkiness just didnt quite ring true to me. I can definitely see why its so popular, and I appreciate what its trying to do, but I never really felt caught up in the characters and their problems.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. This is actually a favorite book of mine, though I should probably read it again sometime soon since Im older. At any rate, Im glad you enjoyed it overall. The last words in this book did make me interested in learning other peoples last words.

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure. :) I can certainly see why this one is so popular, and I do wonder whether Id read it ten years ago whether I would have clicked completely with the characters.

      The last words thing was really interesting, and I did find Miles comment about how last words often highlight a way a person has lived the rest of their lives very thought-provoking. It did make me think about how I live my life, and what my own last words are likely to be.

  3. I think Im the last person in the world to read John Green. I have heard his characters are overly quirky, but so many people do love him.

    • Stephanie /

      Based on Looking for Alaska, Im not sure Id try another GreenI do think that the quirks detract from/stand in for the characterisation. But I have heard wonderful things about his new book.

  4. Im not a fan of this book. Or John Greens An Abundance of Katherines. But why dont you give Paper Towns, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson a try. :)

    • Stephanie /

      Will Grayson, Will Grayson is definitely on my radar, and Ive heard wonderful things about Paper Towns, as well. Thanks for the recs. :)

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