Quentin sees Margo Roth Spiegelman as the miracle of his life. Since they grew up next door to one another in Orlando, Florida (specifically, in a subdivision called Jefferson park) from the age of two on, they were good friends as children. Once, at age nine, they biked to the park and found a dead man leaning against a tree. Though Quentin convinced young Margo to go back home, where they separated and Quentin’s psychologist parents coached him through the experience calmly, Margo developed a fascination with the case and investigated it by asking two women from the neighborhood questions about the man's death. They told Margo that Robert Joyner was sad about getting divorced and so he shot himself with a gun. In her own words, young Margo poses that "Maybe all the strings inside him broke" (p.8). Quentin ends the prologue by noting that Margo always loved mysteries, maybe "so much that she became one" (p.8).
Part I is called "The Strings." Skipping almost a decade from age 9 to Quentin's present, senior year of high school, the reader meets Q on a day that begins as a usual Wednesday but is foreshadowed to end atypically. Quentin wakes up late, is driven to school by his mother, and meets his best friend Ben Starling outside the band room. Ben is obsessed with the idea of getting a date and going to prom, a desire that Quentin does not share. Ben announces that Radar, their mutual close friend, has gotten a date for prom - a girl named Angela. Ben laments his dateless fate, blaming the story of "Bloody Ben" that spread two years before when he got a kidney infection, spurring a rumor that his urine was actually bloody due to too much masturbation. As they walk to class, Quentin stares as he passes the present incarnation of Margo Roth Spiegelman; she seems to be laughing hysterically at something her friend Becca Arrington has said. He thinks over a few of the stories that are told now about Margo - that she learned guitar from an old man in Mississippi, that she spent three days traveling with the circus, that she rejected the bassist from "The Mallionaires" after hanging out with the band backstage at a concert. Arriving at their lockers, Q and Ben find Radar de-vandalizing an Omnictionary article; their friend has his own obsession with cultivating this Wikipedia-like user-created reference site. Chuck Parson, a school tough-guy, walks over and insults them, asking Quentin what he knows about Margo and Jase, her boyfriend. Quentin responds that he hardly knows her and Chuck leaves. Quentin and Ben meet again at lunch and continue to discuss prom. Angela, Radar's girlfriend, approaches them to ask why they think Radar has never invited her to his house. The boys respond that Radar's parents are just overprotective, but foreshadow to the reader that something else is the matter. Meeting Radar in the hall after lunch, they tell him what happens and it is revealed that Radar's parents own the world's largest collection of black Santas.
After school, things are still totally normal. Quentin goes home, eats sandwiches, greets his parents, eats dinner, does homework, and chats with friends online. As Quentin says, "My days had a pleasant identicalness about them." All that changes when, just before midnight, Margo slides open Quentin's window. Margo is wearing black face paint and clothing and tells Quentin she needs to borrow his car and needs him to drive it while she does eleven things. She explains that she can't use her own car because of her parents and can't go with her friends because they are part of the problems she wants to deal with that night. Her father calls her angrily to come back to her house, so she returns. Quentin thinks over the fact that he doesn't own a car of his own, only owns a set of keys to the family minivan. After a few minutes, Margo returns and convinces Quentin to go with her. The first stop they make is at Publix, to go grocery shopping. Margo sends Q into the grocery store with a list including fish, Veet, Vaseline, Mountain Dew, tulips, a bottle of water, tissues, and spray paint. The words on the list are capitalized randomly, which Margo says is because "The rules of capitalization are so unfair to words in the middle" (p.32). Next, they go to Wal-Mart. Margo talks on and on about how planning for future stability is boring and stupid. During this monologue, she picks up "The Club," a device that locks a car's steering wheel into place, and an air horn.
Back in the car, Margo reveals that Jase has been cheating on her with Becca. Margo reveals that that morning she had been yelling at them, not laughing, and notes that people generally find her less attractive as they get closer to her. Unwrapping "The Club," Margo says that their next stop is Becca's house, where they will be trapping Jase in the act. After putting "The Club" on Jase's steering wheel, they hide in Becca's front yard with a camera. Quentin calls Becca's house and tells her father that his daughter is currently having sex with Jase downstairs and take a picture as Jase comes running outside in his boxers with his penis hanging out. Margo tells Quentin that they aren't done, and convinces him to come inside the house to steal Jase's food, leave a fish for Becca to find, and spray paint the wall. They do so and leap out the window again in time to hear Becca's dad tell them to stop. They keep running, drive the car in reverse until almost running over nearly naked Jase, who Quentin throws a shirt to. Margo tells Quentin that they're going to Karin's house next, yelling somewhat harshly because, as she says, she "though maybe he wasn't cheating" (p.43). Quentin starts to have what seems to be a panic attack, so they pull over in a parking lot and Margo paints her nails while she waits for him to calm down. Once he has recovered, all Margo wants to do at Karin's house is leave flowers on the doorstep with an apologetic note since Karin informed Margo that Jase was cheating which Margo did not respond well to at the time. Next, they go to leave a fish at Jase's house, which Margo says she will deal with since the security system is tricky. Margo sets off the security system almost immediately, throws a fish through a window, and then spray paints an M on the unbroken window beside it. She runs back into the car and they shoot off for the house of Lacey, a friend who didn't tell Margo about Jase cheating. Lacey has also been part enemy to Margo for years, teasing constantly about her weight. Arriving at Lacey's house, Margo jimmies open Lacey's car door and slams another written-on fish under the backseat, finishing the picture off with a spray-painted M on the roof of the car.
For part 9 of 11, Margo directs Quentin to the SunTrust Building in downtown Orlando. Seeing Margo's stare blankly ahead for a moment before going up, Quentin notes, "It was the first time I thought something might be wrong - not my-boyfriend-is-an-ass wrong, but really wrong"(p.54). Gus, the night guard, knows Margo and lets them go up. They go in a conference room with a window view of the whole city and look at their own houses and those they've visited earlier in the night, noting lights on or off and the lack of police cars. They lean against the glass, contemplating the city, and begin to argue. Quentin thinks it's beautiful, especially for the nostalgia it holds. Margo thinks that the city is ugly and looks even uglier from afar because one can see how fake it all is - a "paper town" full of "paper people"(p.57). Calming down some, she admits that she doesn't care about losing any one of her friends, but that somewhere in this cheating scandal, her "last string"(p.58) broke. They leave the SunTrust building and Margo tells Quentin that it is his turn to pick a victim. They choose Chuck Parson, reminiscing together about the time at the dancing school they were all forced to attend that Chuck Parson convinced every girl to reject Q's offers to dance. They drive up to a house and scramble up and into a window that Margo thinks is Chuck's. Quentin accidentally makes a noise and when the lights come on they find it is not Chuck's house or room. They flee back to the car and call Radar and then Ben, who wakes up and gives them Chuck's address using Radar's school login. They drive to the correct house, crawl through the window again, and proceed to Veet Chuck's right eyebrow and Vaseline multiple doorknobs throughout the house (plus many surfaces in Chuck's room). Chuck's eyes shoot open, but Margo throws his comforter over him and they both shoot out the window. Margo spray-paints another M on the house and they drive off celebrating.
Margo announces that their last stop, number 11, is SeaWorld. Quentin protests and they fight about who has given more to the other during this nighttime escapade - Quentin for driving her all over and putting his future on the line for Margo, or Margo who could have done this adventure alone but chose Quentin to share it with. Tensely, they set off for SeaWorld. Margo has researched how to get into SeaWorld and so the two scamper purposefully over six lanes of highway, through trees and potential poison ivy, and finally through a waist-deep "moat." When they are almost safely to the other side, a snake bites Margo. Quentin promptly gets her to lie down and attempts to suck out the poison, though during this Margo spots the snake and IDs it as a harmless garter snake. A security guard approaches them calmly and banters with Margo, "talking to her breasts"(p.76). She gives him a hundred dollar bill and the security guard lets them off free, reminding them not to walk by the whale tank which has video cameras on it all night. They sit together on a bench; then, when some jazzy music is turned on over the speakers rather than the Muzak that was playing before, they dance. Finally, they drive home, stopping on the way to buy towels to attempt to dry off. Margo gives Quentin the camera with the revealing picture of Jase and they clean up the car. Before parting, they hug and Margo whispers to him "I. Will. Miss. Hanging. Out. With. You."(p.81).
Green begins the book with two epigraphs. The first is a section of a poem called "Jack O'Lantern" by Katrina Vandenberg; the section describes looking at a jack o'lantern, the light shining through the cut out face in the dark. Significantly, the author refers to the jack o'lantern using the female pronoun "she," imbuing the image with a sense of feminine mystery. The second epigraph is a quote from a song by The Mountain Goats that questions whether friends can destroy one another. These two epigraphs orient the reader to the time period of early 2000s (Vandenberg's poem was published in 2004 and The Mountain Goats' song was released in 2002); important themes of friendship, nighttime, and seeing through things; and the angst-ridden, philosophical tone of both quotes match that of the novel to follow.
When Green starts the novel, he begins with a Prologue set in Quentin and Margo's childhood. This choice underscores the novel's classic YA Fiction theme of "Coming of Age." The juxtaposition of this traumatic childhood mystery with rest of the novel, beginning with a normal day for Quentin, demonstrates Margo's curious and restless nature and Quentin's comparative tranquility and foreshadows the presence of Margo in Quentin's later narrative. The novel will end with Margo and Quentin thinking back to their childhood together, bringing their journey full-circle as they attempt to accept their adult selves.
This section of the book is all about anger and revenge, and Margo dominates the plot while Quentin follows with mixed feelings of panic and awe. Though Quentin is closer to Margo than he has been since childhood, he perception of her also lags one step behind. His feelings for her are a mix of childhood idolization and teenage hormones, and it is likely because of this fog of attraction that Quentin does not pick up on the fact that Margo is giving a huge, final performance before leaving. Margo gives glimpses of true emotion, like after finding and photographing Jase at Becca's house and noting that she hadn't quite believed his cheating was true, but generally maintains her role as a beautiful, fierce enigma.
Gender plays a large role in this book, and (purposefully or not) women in the book are generally represented as objects of male sexualization and possession. Though Quentin scoffs at Ben's pursuit of "honeybunnies" and the SeaWorld security guard's ogling of Margo's breasts, he too often fixates on her body and generally thinks of her in relation to himself. The other female characters the reader meets - Angela, Becca, Lacey - are all placed in the book in relation to men and often provide comic relief with pithy quotes about prom dresses, healthy diets, and kissing style. Notable exceptions are Quentin's mother, Margo's mother, and Margo's sister Ruthie, who all serve as tertiary characters generally oblivious to the tumultuous happenings in their families. As a male writer, this is something Green must be ever wary of - acknowledging the flaws in his teenage, male main character but still providing female characters with complexity and respect.
Much of the book takes place in the course of two days - the day of school and nighttime mischief in Part I and the day of driving and finding Margo in Part III. In between, time stretches on and on as Quentin reads books, drives around looking for clues, takes finals, and attends parties. This compression and expansion of time parallels the feelings of boredom and abrupt and fleeting excitement in the life of a teenager and gives both depth and breadth to the reader's understanding of how Quentin thinks and functions.