As a former teenage girl, I think what I appreciate most about John Green’s writing is his characters. Looking for Alaska (Dutton Juvenile, 2005) was Green’s first novel. While not as breathtakingly awesome as his more recent The Fault in Our Stars, it’s definitely still a solid young adult read.
Looking for Alaska begins with our main character and narrator, Miles Halter, and his move to boarding school in Alabama. Miles leaves behind a somewhat friendless high school existence in Florida to search for his own “great perhaps” and some adventure. Within hours of his arrival at Culver Creek Preparatory, he’s made fast friends with his roommate – know as The Colonel – and been given a nickname of his own. Pudge. (It’s ironic.) The speed at which Pudge makes friends at Culver Creek throws into question his difficulty with friendships in Florida.
Through The Colonel, Pudge also befriends Takumi and, most importantly, Alaska Young. Alaska is beautiful, impetuous, vulnerable, and a little off the rails. Seeing her through Pudge’s eyes, we are continually reminded of how beautiful Alaska is. But she isn’t that simple. And while she’s fun and daring and introduces Pudge to a world of things he’s never experienced, she turns on a dime and is constantly unpredictable. It’s alternatively endearing and frustrating, which is pretty much how Pudge feels.
This is one of the great things about John Green’s writing. Alaska has a lot of depth, she’s multi-faceted, to the point that there are many questions left unanswered about here. That’s a good thing. That’s what real people are like.
In fact, one of my major problems with the novel was that Green relies on the prop of each characters having a “thing”. Pudge memorizes famous people’s last words. The Colonel memorizes capital cities. Takumi raps. This isn’t how real people work and when these “things’ are brought up, it reduces them to caricatures. Green is a better writer than that.
At the same time, Alaska is a classic girl-in-a-novel, in that many of her quirks are seen as endearing when, in reality, they’d make her too difficult to have any sort of relationship with. She’s unstable as can be. And yet, she doesn’t seem to deal with insecurities the way that the male characters do. Alaska has big questions but never worries about the little things like her shoes and whether her arms are fat. While we’re supposed to see her as vulnerable, she actually comes across as impossible to crack open or get close to. Perhaps this is due to Pudge’s narration and perspective. Insecure himself, he can’t possibly imagine Alaska doubting herself.
In fact, toward the end of the novel, Pudge is called on almost exactly that. He has an idealized version of Alaska and that isn’t who she really is. We never get to learn who she really is and maybe that’s deliberate because neither does Pudge.
The novel is split into two sections – “Before” and “After”. What splits those two areas came as a complete surprise and changes the novel completely from what I expected. Kudos to John Green from not shying away from real things. He creates characters with real thoughts, real desires, and real fears, and they’re a pleasure to spend time with.