Phew. I can always tell when my social life has collapsed. I’m writing a book review in my pyjamas at 8 0’clock on a Saturday night. With exam time fast approaching, I’ve been getting behind with my reading. Looking for Alaska was exactly the kind of book I needed – an easy, satisfying novel that I could absorb on the bus each morning. A high school story with an intelligent twist.
Looking for Alaska is John Green’s debut novel – that’s the guy of The Fault in Our Stars fame. He’s generated an awful lot of hype on the blogosphere, so I was quite interested to see how some of his other work would compare to The Fault. For anyone who is interested, I reviewed that one here.
Tired of his safe, colourless life, Miles ‘Pudge’ Halter arrives at the prestigious Culver Creek Boarding School in search of the ‘Great Perhaps.’ Fascinated by famous last words, he wants some adventure and uncertainty in his life. And then he meets Alaska Young – sexy, free-spirited and undeniably messed up. Nonetheless, he’s hooked. For me, Looking for Alaska was about the search for meaning in the artificial world of adolescence.
I had one main reservation going into this book. I am innately suspicious of familiar teen stories involving an awkward, introverted boy who meets a sexy, mysterious girl and learns things about life. Apparently, the correct term for such a female character is the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ or MPDGs for short. The phrase was coined by Nathan Rabin in 2007 to describe Kirstin Dunst’s character in the film, Elizabeth Town. In his words:
“No existential quandary is so great that it can’t be solved by the perfect combination of pop song and dream girl, a world of giddy pop epiphanies and gentle humanism unencumbered by protective irony or sneering cynicism . . . The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
Now, it turns out there’s a fair amount of MPDG criticism floating around the Internet (I would suggest doing some further reading if you’re interested). Some writers think MPDG is a term used too often now, and that is has become a way to devalue genuinely strong and quirky female characters. Other writers think it’s a great way to point out that many female characters are essentially substance-less and exist solely for the personal development of a male protagonist.
John Green actually has a video where he addresses MPDGS in relation to his character, Alaska, which can be found here. He says he tries to make it clear that Miles romanticised Alaska to such an extent, that his perception of her was not the way she would have viewed herself. I think that definitely comes across in the story, but as to whether this excludes Alaska from the ranks of the MPDGs- I’m not entirely sure. She’s a vibrant character but she’s not a kind of person I’ve ever encountered in my travels. Maybe that’s symptomatic of a dull teenage-hood on my part, but Alaska didn’t feel entirely real to me. However, I do think she makes a great (albeit fictional) character.
While I didn’t find Alaska particularly relatable or familiar, another part of the story struck a very strong chord with me. I won’t discuss this part in any depth, simply because this would risk revealing a major plot point which may or may not become obvious to you when you start reading the book. However I am willing to offer a few sufficiently vague comments. Firstly, the big twist, while somewhat clichéd in itself, operates on the story in a way that’s refreshing original and deeply relatable. It’s not the event itself, but the aftermath that drives the story forward. Miles’ reaction to this incident and questions it raises for him are familiar, because they are part of the process of growing up and learning that the world is a much bigger, meaner and more complicated place that it seemed to be when you were a child.
One of my initial problems with Miles as a character, was I couldn’t understand why he was so hung up on Alaska. Granted I am not, nor have ever been, a sixteen year old boy. However, I couldn’t quite understand Alaska’s hold over the men (boys) in her life. Maybe that’s because I am looking at her from a nasty, critical, (she’s not even that pretty, god!) girl perspective. But the fact that Miles was willing to put up with Alaska’s antics made me respect him less. After all, a troubled childhood does act as a general license for doucehbaggery. He knows that, yet he keeps coming back for more. However, my attitude certainly changed as the novel progressed. Miles really grows up and he takes you with him – I found the conclusion to be deeply satisfying and it certainly struck at a personal part of me.
On that note, with holidays so close yet so far, here are some of the reviews you can expect from me in the coming weeks:
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I’m re-reading this one in preparation for a deeply nerdy pilgrimage to Bath next month. Be prepared UK.