Looking for Alaska

“‘Why do you smoke so […] fast?’ I asked.

She looked at me and smiled widely, and such a wide smile on her narrow face might have looked goofy were it not for the unimpeachably elegant green in her eyes. She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, ‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.'”

John Green is one of those YA authors who seems to do no wrong. He may not be the most popular author, but his books have a certain substance that goes over well with critics without getting heavy-handed.

A few years ago I had to evaluate An Abundance of Katherines for a math education class and was surprised at the amount of food for thought and potential themes. Looking For Alaska has the same characteristics–at first glance, almost too much so. This first novel seems to set up the scenario of quirky hero with an idiosyncratic pastime, sympathetic and motivational best friend, mysteriously compelling female, and quest for some sort of greater truth. After a while, however, the characters set themselves up as distinct and I became absorbed in the story.

Miles Halter, whose sole claim to fame is memorizing famous last words, seeks a “Great Perhaps” when he leaves home to board at Culver Creek High School. He is thrilled to finally find friends in his roommate Chip and Chip’s scrappy crowd, but the crux of the group is clearly Alaska Young. Everything about Alaska mesmerizes: her fascination with literature and philosophical questions, her reckless nature, her impetuous tendencies, her ability to make someone feel special. Despite the fact that she has a serious boyfriend, Miles falls for her hard. One of Alaska and Chip’s greatest enjoyments is devising elaborate pranks against the school, in which Miles is soon caught up. When one risk becomes too many, the characters realize vulnerabilities in themselves and each other.

The book is probably best for older teenagers, as in addition to language there is smoking, underage drinking, and occasional sexual elements. In fact, it makes me pretty suspicious of boarding schools in general. Despite upholding stringent rules the discipline is generally lax, with repercussions only if actually caught. The students have the freedom of a college campus with four fewer years of maturity. For example, Miles picks up smoking simply as a habit because Chip smokes and shares cigarettes. I guess this means I’m officially part of the adult generation if I wish these kids didn’t have as much independence quite yet.

John Green tends to make his themes obvious but interesting, and I do like how everything fits together. In this book one of the main questions, posed first by Alaska to Miles and taken from The General in His Labyrinth,  is “how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” They wrestle with what the labyrinth refers to–life, death, suffering–and how to possibly escape it.

Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award the year it was published, and even if this success did become a template somewhat for his later novels it’s still a well-written  and thought-provoking book.

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Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 5:51 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I don’t read a lot of YA novels, but I am always surprised (not sure why really) by how sophisticated and deep some of them are. I’ve heard of this author’s earlier book, but not this one. I will have to check him out.

  2. I’ve never even heard of this author, but I’ll be looking for him now. He sounds intriguing and I like a good YA book now and then. Thanks for the review!

  3. […] Abundance of Katherines Since a lot of my review of John Green’s Looking for Alaska compared it to his second novel, I thought I would share […]

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