It took me a while to warm up to this book about an obsession and epic quest. Eighteen-year-old Quentin Jacobsen (call him Ishmael) is excessively preoccupied with his neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman. In the beginning, I was as distracted as he was by the object of his fixation. But I soon realized my focus was misplaced.
Quentin, known as Q by his friends, has always romanticized Margo as the ideal girl, without actually having any idea about what she was really like. But as one of Q’s best friends, Radar, observes, such uninformed obsessions usually reveal more about the person doing the imagining than about the person being imagined. And as Q’s parents – both therapists – muse (in one of their conversations with each other that shows Green subtly poking fun at therapist-speak), many people have difficulty seeing others as human beings: his mother notes, “We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals.”
This is the trap that catches both Q and Margo as they each struggle to figure out who they are, who each other is, and who their friends really are.
Early on in the story, with only three weeks left of high school, Margo arranges to wreak some middle-of-the-night vandalism havoc on her erstwhile friends, and asks for Q’s help, knowing he won’t refuse anything she asks. Then she goes missing, but not without leaving Q some very obscure hints as to where she might have gone. Q, echoing Ahab’s singular pursuit of Moby (to which he intermittently refers), becomes obsessed with finding Margo. He embarks on his own voyage, with his best friends as his crew. [Green’s portrayal of the love and loyalty of friendship is my favorite aspect of the book.] Together, they work through the metaphors that might define Margo and yield clues to where she is: strings (for fragile beings who can fall apart easily); vessels (for those who seem sturdy but can always sink); or grass (the latter as per the precepts conveyed in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, passages of which are included in the book as Q puzzles through their meaning). All of these motifs play a role in the story. Q’s epiphany is realizing that the metaphor you use as your perceptual lenses makes an enormous difference:
“…maybe the strings break, or maybe our ships sink, or maybe we’re grass – our roots so interdependent that no one is dead as long as someone is still alive. We don’t suffer from a shortage of metaphors, is what I mean. But you have to be careful which metaphor you choose, because it matters. If you choose the strings, then you’re imagining a world in which you can become irreparably broken. If you choose the grass, you’re saying that we are all infinitely interconnected, that we can use these root systems not only to understand one another but to become one another. The metaphors have implications. Do you know what I mean?”
This metaphorical journey, with its participants pondering the metaphorical essence of their friend, who has left them a series of metaphorical clues, is not as abstruse as it sounds. And you can pretty much guess that eventually the journey itself becomes more important than the original aim. It is this journey and what it becomes that gives the book its charm.
Evaluation: This is not my favorite book by John Green, but I love the way he thinks; the way he constructs a story; and the wonderful messages he always manages to impart. Like Moby Dick, this story is not as much about the object of an obsession as it is about those who embark on the odyssey to find it. The “crewmates,” Ben and Radar, are wonderful characters, and as wild and colorful as Ishmael’s mates on the Pequod. Lacey, the latecomer to both the voyage and the friendship, becomes more real and likeable as time goes on.
The book didn’t keep me up all night reading, but I still recommend it as a buddy saga, a coming of age story, and a powerful fable illustrating the idea that (to quote from The Little Prince), “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2009