Before. Miles “Pudge” Halter’s whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the “Great Perhaps” (François Rabelais, poet) even more. Then he heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.
After. Nothing is ever the same.
(WARNING: This review contains spoilers)
Miles Halter is a regular boy. He lives in Florida with his parents, goes to public school and is obsessed with the last words of famous people. He’s a bit of a geek and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. His life is ordinary and boring and Miles believes that there has to be more to the world than this. He wants to seek what poet François Rabelais called ‘the Great Perhaps’. So, he decides to leave public school and attend the boarding school, Culver Creak, where his father used to study.
At Culver Creek he meets the Colonel, his new roommate, whose real name is Chip Martin. The Colonel promptly renames Miles as ‘Pudge’ because he is so skinny. The Colonel comes from a poor single parent family and attends Culver Creek by way of scholarship. Because of this, he hates the preppy rich kids who attend the school. The Colonel and Pudge hit it off straight away and the Colonel introduces him to his other friends, a Japanese boy called Takumi and a girl with the name of Alaska. It doesn’t take long for Pudge to fall head of heels in love with Alaska, who has a boyfriend and doesn’t plan on cheating.
In the first couple of months that Pudge spends at Culver Creek he gets acquainted with the way of life that the Colonel, Alaska and Takumi hold dear. It involves smoking, which Pudge didn’t do before, drinking and playing a lot of pranks on the weekday-warriors (the rich kids who only stay at school during the week and go home to their air-conditioned mansions). As Pudge spends more time with Alaska, it becomes clear that she isn’t a typical teenager. She gets unexplainable moody out of the blue, she’s impulsive and manipulative and she seems to be sad in a way that goes to the bone.
Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die
What you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person
The book is divided between ‘before’ and ‘after’. Before, Pudge lives his new semi-normal life by studying a lot, playing pranks, smoking and drinking Strawberry Hill with Alaska. After, nothing will ever be the same. Even though she’s not coming back, Pudge and the Colonel keep looking for Alaska.
Alaska was obsessed with the question posed by Simon Bolivar: “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”. She lived and died by her answer: Straight and Fast.
When I first started reading this book, it took me a while to really get into it. I thought that, going by the blurb, that it was going to be a love story between Pudge and Alaska but it turned out to be so much more than that. When I did really get into the story, I lost myself in it. I didn’t think ‘God, I love John Green’ the whole time as I was reading like I did with an Abundance of Katherines. I really lost myself in the story, I forgot everything around me, and that is (one of) the criteria for a really great book. So, it started out a bit slow but definitely went straight up from there.
There are so many interesting things about this book and there are so many things that people’s opinions differ on. A lot of these centre around Alaska and whether or not she is likeable. I read some reviews that said she was childish or annoying but I don’t agree. If you know a bit about John Green, and definitely if you have seen the Crash Course video on The Great Gatsby, you know that he strongly believes that some characters were meant to be disliked and I think that is what he was doing with Alaska. You’re supposed to love her, but you’re also supposed to dislike her. She is this exuberant, beautiful girl who makes Pudge’s life an adventure, but she’s also kind of a bitch and she’s also kind of selfish sometimes. She’s not supposed to be all good. However, I don’t think she’s childish. I think that Alaska needed help and friends who were able to look past the ‘jokes’ and see her for how she really was: broken. But, I don’t think you can expect that from a teenage boy. I, myself, didn’t care much for Alaska but mostly because I didn’t perceive her as happy, beautiful, slightly crazy teenager; I recognized her self-destructive behaviour. I had a pretty accurate idea of the ‘event’ a while before it happened. Mostly I pitied her.
(Very spoilery part!)
What I liked about this book is that there is no certainty about the way she died. After finishing this book I read some Q&As with John Green who says that even he doesn’t know what happened that night in the Blue Citrus. I, however, do have a theory. We know that she was incredibly, shouldn’t-be-able-to-walk drunk and that she was devastated about forgetting the anniversary of her mom’s death. We also know from a previous scene in the book that she feels extremely guilty about what happened to her mom and that she feels like she always screws up everything. So, I think that she did commit suicide, albeit unconsciously. Pudge and the Colonel look up signs of suicidal behaviour and they didn’t recognize a lot of those signs in Alaska. I think that’s because she didn’t plan it. She was unhappy and severely depressed but she wasn’t planning suicide. I think, however, that when she got in her car that night, as drunk as she was, telling herself how she has again ruined everything, that when she saw the truck and the police car she saw it as a way out. I could clearly imagine her thinking ‘the world would be so much better if I wasn’t here’ and while thinking that, driving straight into the car. Maybe she didn’t do it consciously and maybe she didn’t plan it but I do believe that it was suicide.
(End of very spoilery part)
There has been a lot of controversy about this book in regards to the sexual scenes that occur. A lot of people say that a scene where a BJ is given was totally unnecessary. This scene has even caused the book to be banned from school libraries in Tennessee (but it could be Alabama.. somewhere in the south). I understand that schools could object to this book if they didn’t look further than just those scenes. After all, the book does contain a lot of under-age drinking, smoking and sexual acts. For the record: I am opposed to book banning in general and to this book in particular. I think it’s great that this book is being taught in the US. However, in regards to the sexual scenes, Green explains later on that both scenes were necessary to illustrate the awkwardness of the sexual act in one scene and then the intimacy of something as innocent as kissing in the next. He was trying to make clear that sex doesn’t mean closeness or even intimacy, you need more for that.
I wanted so badly to lie down next to her on the couch, to wrap my arms around her and sleep. Not fuck, like in those movies. Not even have sex. Just sleep together in the most innocent sense of the phrase.
I was very impressed with this book. I didn’t expect it to be this good as I didn’t enjoy reading An Abundance of Katherines as much as I thought I would have but it turns out that this book is (nearly) at the top of my John Green’s books list. The Fault in Our Stars is still at the top. I have to say, it is a hell of a book to make your debut with, John. You have my congratulations.
This book really moved me. I have to admit, there were tears at some points while reading and I think I was still reeling from it about 30 minutes after I finished reading. It really has given me food for thought about life and about our own labyrinth. At the end of the book, one of the teachers gives the students the following assignment for their final essay: “How will you – you personally – ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” This was Alaska’s question and now the students have to answer it. I want to answer it, too and I will. But not right now as this review is already becoming kind of long.
In conclusion: a very moving and yet funny book about finding the great perhaps and developing your own identity. I enjoyed reading it very much and it made me think about some important stuff. Also, getting to know all these last words of famous people was very entertaining and informative. I liked that a lot. I also enjoyed finally being able to get all the vlogbrothers ‘looking for Alaska’ references. I do implore you all to read it and let me know what you think happened to Alaska. Did you like her? Do you like Pudge and the Colonel? What do you think of the labyrinth of suffering? What is the Great Perhaps?
My favourite looking for Alaska quotes:
“So we gave up. I’d finally had enough of chasing after a ghost who did not want to be discovered. We’d failed, maybe, but some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved.”
“…if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane.”
“Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia” (originally said by John’s wife, Sara)
“The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.”
“Thomas Edison’s last words were ‘It’s very beautiful over there’. I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”