Review of Looking for Alaska

In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Miles “Pudge” Halter decides to leave his boring, safe life in Florida to attend a preparatory boarding school in Alabama. Pudge is obsessed with famous last words, and he knows that he’ll never be the speaker of them unless he does something real with his life. At Culver Creek Boarding School, Pudge meets Alaska Young: smart, funny, sexy, moody, self-destructive, and amazing. Pudge is fascinated by her and is sure Alaska is the key to him discovering the “Great Perhaps” (Francois Rabelais, poet.) What she helps him discover instead is how unsafe life really is and the real meaning of loss.

I have had a love/hate relationship with this book since I read it almost four years ago. Looking for Alaska is Green’s first book, and just as a warning, if you don’t want it spoiled for you, don’t read this review. It’s impossible to talk about this book in its entirety without giving away the important parts.

The book is divided into “Before” and “After”, and the thing that has always bothered me about this book is the “Before” part, which is 113 pages to “After”’s 108. Pudge’s life before consists of struggling to fit in at his new school, pulling pranks, yearning for Alaska, who he knows is way out of his league, and experiencing some romantic firsts with his sort-of girlfriend Lara. I never liked “Before” because it’s shallow and goes on for too long. I tired of the pranks Pudge and his friends pulled, I didn’t care about the cafeteria food, I didn’t want instructions on how to give a blow job, and if Pudge complained one more time how much he spent on his friend’s cigarettes, I was going to reach into the book and throttle him. This is all so stupid, I thought, even as I read it this second time. I just don’t care.

And then After happens. When I read this book the first time, I just wanted After to exist without Before, but this time I realized that without the youthful, stupid shallowness of Before, After wouldn’t have nearly as much weight.
Throughout the book, Alaska Young is moody: flirty and teasing one minute, sobbing between expletives and hateful comments the next. Pudge says of her early in the book, “I’d certainly had enough of her unpredictability- cold one day, sweet the next; irresistibly flirty on moment, resistibly obnoxious the next.” But, just as is the case with most people, no one expects anyone to do anything about their moods until they do and it’s too late. One night, after Pudge and Alaska spend a (drunk, on her part) night making out together, Alaska gets a phone call and suddenly explodes, shrieking and sobbing about something she forgot. She runs from the room, gets in her car, still incredibly drunk, and six miles down the road, slam her car into a police cruiser and is killed instantly. While it is ruled officially as an accident, Pudge and his friends are positive that it was a suicide, given that Alaska didn’t even try to swerve.

It’s the part following this event that makes Green’s book a work of art. It’s the only thing that made me read it again, and it is, I’m sure, the thing that earned it the Printz Award. Pudge’s experience and expression of his grief is painfully truthful, almost graphically honest. When I read books, I dogear the pages that contain a quote that I like or relate to. You can clearly see, in this picture how much the After section speaks to me:

Pudge’s immense guilt; his belief that, in letting her leave, he killed Alaska; his struggle to accept that he wasn’t enough for her, and that just because she kissed him last didn’t mean she loved him last, are revealed poignantly and painfully. Pudge goes between wanting to know what Alaska’s last words and thoughts were to realizing that maybe that will be worse than not knowing.

It’s this disparity between the Before and After sections that makes me accept that one cannot exist without the other. When someone dies, we all wish that our time with them was more meaningful, fuller, but there’s no way to edit the past to help it fit into the future without them. The Before section that I hate so much makes this book what it is: a well-rounded, devastating book. I have so, so many quotes underlined in this book, and I won’t post them all here because that would be ridiculous. You should read the book and discover them for yourself. And just remember: the Before is worth muddling through the get to the After.

Choice quotes:

“You have to be careful here, with students and teachers. And I do hate being careful.” [The Colonel] smirked.
I hated being careful, too- or wanted to, at least.

Alaska gathered six precalc kids […] and piled us into her tiny blue two-door. By happy coincidence, a cute sophomore named Lara ended up sitting on my lap. Since we were only four layers from doing it, I took the opportunity to introduce myself.

I vaguely remember Lara smiling at me from the doorway, the glittering ambiguity of a girl’s smile, which seems to promise an answer to the question but never gives it. THE question, the one we’ve all been asking since girls stopped being gross, the question that is too simple to be uncomplicated: Does she like me or like me?

“If you’re staying here in hopes of making out with Alaska, I sure wish you wouldn’t.”
[…]
“It’s not because I want to make out with her.”
“Hold on.” [The Colonel] grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he’d just made a mathematical breakthrough and then he looked back up at me. “I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of shit.”

There comes a time when we realize our parents cannot save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow.

I knew so many last words. But I will never know hers.

What was I so afraid of, anyway? The thing had happened. She was dead […] And now she was colder by the hour, more dead with every breath I took. I thought: That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it.

What was an “instant” death anyway? How long is an instant? Is it one second? Ten? The pain of those seconds must have been awful as her heart burst and her lungs collapsed and there was no air and no blood to her brain and only raw panic. What the hell is instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous.
Was there time for her life to flash before her eyes? Was I there?

No reason to be angry. Anger just distracts from the all-encompassing sadness, the frank knowledge that you killed her and robbed her of a future and a life […] we could never be anything but wholly, unforgivably guilty.

“It is a law that parents should not have to bury their children. And someone should enforce it.”

“Maybe we should just let her be dead,” I said, frustrated. It seemed to me that nothing we might find out would make anything any better. […] “We’re not any less guilty. All it does is make her into thid awful, selfish bitch.”
“Christ, Pudge. Do you remember the person she actually was? Do you remember how she could be a selfish bitch? That was part of her, and you used to know it. It’s like now you only care about the Alaska you made up.”

“I’m plenty angry, Pudge. And you haven’t been the picture of placidity of late, either, and you aren’t going to off yourself. Wait, are you?”
“No,” I said. And maybe it was only because Alaska couldn’t hit the brakes and I couldn’t hit the accelerator. Maybe she just had an odd kind of courage that I lacked, but no.

I wanted to be the last one she loved. And I knew I wasn’t. I hated her for leaving that night, and I hated myself, too, not only because I let her go, but because if I had been enough for her, she wouldn’t have even wanted to leave.

She fell apart because that’s what happens.

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Posted on July 31, 2012, in Books, Rachel, Reviews, Young Adult Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I really liked this book. Heartwarming, disturbing, and funny at times.

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