Quentin spends much of the book obsessing over Margo, to the point where he loses touch of reality. What he idolizes is a mere image that looks like Margo: a flawless, beautiful object to be sought after. He clings to the memories they shared as children, although in reality, Margo has long since abandoned her innocence and Quentin's friendship.
Quentin romanticizes most aspects of Margo's personality, which are later revealed as capricious and selfish. After discovering her whereabouts, Margo shows little concern for what Quentin, her friends, and her family has gone through in her absence. Although he will always love her in some way, Quentin realizes that he can no longer put his life on hold for her. This growth stems from him overcoming his false perceptions and seeing his love in a truer light.
Very few teenagers have a complete, mature understanding of their identity, and the characters of Paper Towns are no exception.
Margo repeatedly references the idea of metaphorical "strings" that hold a person together. These strings represent emotional stability and inner peace. In the beginning of the novel, Quentin recalls a memory in which he and Margo discover a deceased man's body in a park. Quentin is disgusted, while Margo's fascination is piqued. "Maybe all the strings inside him broke," Margo infers (p. 8).
This memory, and the idea of strings follow Quentin years later. The search for one's strings represent the identity crisis both Quentin and Margo undergo. Quentin's occurs as he comes to terms with the false representation he has created of his childhood crush. Margo learns to stop fleeing responsibility, and in turn loses Quentin as the realization comes too late.
Quentin eventually comes to realize that his platonic friendships with Radar, Ben, and Lacy are more fulfilling to him than a relationship with an idolized mirage.
As Quentin discovers himself and Margo in a realistic light, he begins to prioritize the individuals in his life who have shown genuine care for him. Lacy, who was once a casual friend to Margo, criticizes Margo for her lack of regard for her supposed "friend's" feelings. Once timid and complacent, Lacy grows more comfortable with expressing her opinions to those who truly care to listen.
While Quentin's friendships with Ben and Radar were once overshadowed by his love for Margo, he ultimately learns to appreciate them and recognize their loyalty to him.
It is no question that Quentin's relationship with Margo after she disappears verges on obsession. He denies his schoolwork and even skips school altogether, fights with his friends, and spends the night in an abandoned building curled up with a blanket that smells faintly of her. Green parallels Quentin's obsession with Margo by having Quentin's teacher Dr. Holden lecture on Moby Dick. Green writes, in the voice of Dr. Holden, "You never see Ahab wanting anything else in the whole novel, do you? He has a singular obsession. You can argue...that Ahab is a fool for being obsessed. But you could also argue that there is something tragically heroic about fighting this battle he is doomed to lose"(p.159). After this, Green, back in the narrating voice of Quentin, writes, "I wrote down as much as I could of what she said, realizing that I could probably pull off my final reaction paper without actually reading the book"(p.159). Though Dr. Holden is posing insightful questions very important to understanding Quentin's struggle - such as whether he is a hero or a fool, something Margo will bring up himself - Quentin clearly will not listen, even demonstrating uncharacteristic disregard for school, one of the effects of his obsession with tracking Margo. While Quentin does eventually find Margo, the fact that their reunion is so different from what he expected demonstrates that perhaps he was more obsessed with the chase than with Margo herself.
Paper Towns begins with a death - that of Robert Joyner when Quentin and Margo are 9 years old. Throughout the ensuing book, death follows the plot in various ways. Quentin believes Margo to be dead, and his suspicions are most terrifying the first time Ben, Radar, and he visit the abandoned mini-mall. Though they are convinced she has committed suicide somewhere inside, they discover that it was only a dead, bloated raccoon. Later, while exploring a pseudovision, Quentin believes that Margo must be dead behind a tree that he sees in the distance, but when he reaches it there is nothing there at all, causing him to cry and pound the ground with his fists. However, this scene is also important for its depiction of pseudovisions themselves as dead - Green narrates through Quentin that, "There was nothing built atop it, just the hole cut into the earth like a dead mouth agape"(p.211). Though Quentin does not find Margo dead, he realizes the similarity between finding someone who has committed suicide and witnessing the liminal existence of a location that was never finished.
Margo is described by herself and others as someone who looks less beautiful to another person as they get closer to her. Though Quentin protests against this, this may be the truth (for Margo and for all people) with regard to outer and inner beauty. It is easier to see a blurred image of someone from far away and perceive him or her as beautiful, as Quentin sees Margo in the beginning of the book, but by the end of the book he approaches her both physically and mentally. Quentin begins to understand her flaws and see her as less effortlessly perfect and more as a real human being. However, he clearly still sees her as beautiful inside and out, demonstrating that there is more to beauty that a perfect exterior. Other beautiful characters are also humanized, as both vapid and simply human, when Quentin gets closer to them - namely Lacey, but also Jase and Chuck to a certain extent.
Childhood and Coming of Age
As a young adult fiction novelist, Green's books often have a major theme of "coming of age," or transitioning (often through struggle) from childhood to adulthood. When Green starts the novel, he begins with a Prologue set in Quentin and Margo's childhood. 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 ends with Margo and Quentin thinking back to their childhood together and even burying symbolically it through the physical journal in which Margo has been writing stories and plotting childish adventures, bringing their journey full-circle as they attempt accept their adult selves.
The question Green poses through Quentin and Margo's different outlooks on life is what young adulthood and adulthood should comprise of. Quentin (and Ben, Radar, even Jase) has plans to attend college in the fall, while Margo does not want to tread a path so straight and narrow. However, she does still wish to grow up, moving to New York to pursue a path of self-discovery. While neither Quentin nor Margo is adult in their decision-making, they do both seek to transition into adulthood in a way that is right for them. It is Margo's legal adulthood that allows her parents (and Detective Warren) to let her go off on this adventure, but it is the emotional maturity of her decision that allows Quentin to walk away and live his own life, not worried anymore about her safety or soundness of choice.
Paper Towns Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Paper Towns is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.