In Love : Paper Towns

I should provide, by way of an introduction, a warning and a reason about why I’ve written this post.  This a long post at over 3750 words.  It needs to be long because I was “introduced” to John Green’s book Paper Towns by a friend in the way of one of her own blog posts.  In that post, she spoke of me in terms of Green’s main male protagonist Q and my idealisation of her as more than a person.

This devastated me.

One of my strengths, as identified by friends and colleagues, had been my ability to understand people and easily build strong relationships with them.  In that one blog post, for the first time in my life someone was actually telling me that I couldn’t see the true them, and not only that, that it was having a detrimental affect on her self and our relationship.

Regular readers will know that I don’t have much luck with women.  That post didn’t help.  I now doubt myself, whether I’m simply seeing a body, seeing a holiday, seeing someone to hang out with, a future, or “just a girl”; and whether “just a girl” limits the degree to which I should see her strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams and fears for the worry that it will push her in to being something that she’s not because it’s what I want to see.

That one paragraph in one blog from one person is still weighing heavy on me.

I, therefore, a 32 year old male, ventured in to “young adult” fiction to gain an understanding of the idea that I’d been presented with to work out how I was hurting possibly the most important person I had in my life at that time.

The book’s synopsis is this:

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life—dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery having run away from home. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew…



Since I wrote In Search Of A Connection thinking about the strength of relationships we choose to make, I’ve been pondering on what it actually means to be in love, a state often seen as the ultimate connection.  While many of us want to be there, there are many obstacles in our path to that fulfillment that we can either put there ourselves or that can be placed there by other people.

A 2013 study by Harvard researchers has suggested that love is the key to a healthy and fulfilled life, but defining love and what it means to be in it is a pretty hard task.  It can, possibly, be defined by a list of characteristics that can readily be seen in a stereotypically “loving” relationship.  This can be things like the fairly obvious physical and emotional affection, wanting to share experiences and possessions (and desserts) with another person, a wish to make them happy and be sensitive to their needs while also offering them assistance to achieve their ambitions and aspirations.

Either way, the focus is on the other person, looking to improve how they feel about themselves rather than how we feel about ourselves.

In this sense, I think a possible misconception about love is the fact that we “fall” in to it.  I think it’s possible to fall in to a situation where it exists but it implies that we can get there by accident and therefore that a relationship including love is simply routine where any of the actions I listed above are replaced by the idea of simply “being in a relationship.”

I think it’s also easy to make someone feel loved by flashing a smile or indulging in the physical side of a relationship without actually being loving, depending on what the motive is for the action.  It’s easy to fake for selfish gain.

An ex-teacher of mine once told me that if, upon his asking why a couple were getting married, they responded with the line “because we’re in love” he would tell them not to go ahead with it.  This is probably what he means.  In essence, we can stop being loving because we see each other as a single entity.  This stops us valuing the person for who they are but rather the fantasy that the relationship can provide.

I believe that this is the point that John Green is trying to make in Paper Towns when he talks of the dehumanising of Margo Roth Spiegelman by Q.  Q began to see the fantasy of what could be with the romanticised Margo that was the one she let him see.

At some point in a romantic relationship it’s possible that both partners venture in to that strange and scary land called Commitment and they do that because they want to be the person who always makes the other happy.

They move from saying “I want to do that with you on Friday because it makes you happy” to saying “I want to do that with you every Friday because it makes you happy”.  I got to a stage with my friend where I wanted to forward plan things, not out of the necessity of being in a relationship but because I thought it was making her happy doing things with me.  (I’ll speak later about The Selfless Good Deed).  I’m pretty sure this happens in relationships that went a lot more romantic than mine.

I didn’t consider myself to be settling in to a routine of just enjoying being in a relationship.  I considered myself to be working at all the things on the list suggested by Harvard as being in a stereotypical loving relationship (romantic or not, and I wasn’t consciously box ticking, obviously), and this will become more apparent as I talk about some other aspects of Paper Towns below.

I just don’t know where the limit is that turns regular acts of kindness in to the dehumanising of a person and why that dehumanising is seen in the actions of some people and not others doing exactly the same thing.


“Just a girl”

In an interview on his own website, Green said this:

I mean, I don’t think I romanticize the life of any human being, except maybe Steven Gerrard.  I look at Kristen Stewart or Britney Spears or One Direction or whomever, and mostly I only see the pure terror and misery of never getting to be away from being one’s performed self, which is the problem that Margo Roth Spiegelman has in this novel, although her performed self is played out on a tiny stage.  Paper Towns is a novel about the problem of imagining other people as Manic Pixie Dream Girls (or Manic Pixie Dream Boys, for that matter). No one IS a Manic Pixie Dream Girl; they’re just constructed that way by those observing them.

If I divorce myself ever so slightly for the time being from the “romantic male gaze” idea which I think is autobiographical on Green’s behalf from what I understand of his reason for writing it, the book is full of people not getting each other.  Lacey didn’t know the real Ben either.  Margo didn’t know the real Q until she took him out to complete the 11 tasks.  Radar didn’t want Angela knowing about the Black Santas.  Even the definition of a “paper town” changed throughout the book.

The thing about Margo is that she actively cultivated another persona, or even multiple personas depending on which window she wanted someone to see her through.  She described herself as “the most horribly self-centered person in the history of the world” and refers to her “friends” as her “various and sundry minions”.  There are the adventures that she gets up to when she runs away, such as learning to play the guitar, joining a traveling circus and going backstage at a concert and later rejecting the bassist.

Margo Roth Spiegelman actually manufactured herself to make people think that she was more than she is, and she even admits to liking this when she says:

People love the idea of a paper girl. They always have. And the worst thing is that loved it, too. I cultivated it, you know?

I actually feel sorry for Margo for not being strong enough to be herself in front of other people who claimed or tried to be her friends.  The book nor the film allude to the social pressures that Margo was under to create that persona, so one can only assume that her pressures were the same as every other person in the book.

Green spends the duration of the book tearing down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to highlight the fact that Margo is “just a girl”, but he never replaces it with anything.  What does it mean to be just a girl if it’s not the rebel, the fragile person who doesn’t want saving, the girl with the breasts that distract security guards…?

Being “just a girl” or “just a boy” sounds like a staggeringly demoralising and hollow thing to be to me.

I saw a girl in my friend, but what I saw in what she demonstrated to me every single day we were friends was a girl who was empowered and empowering, funny, intelligent, strong, beautiful, focused, driven, stupid, ridiculous and sometimes, to be frank, a complete and utter pain in the arse! And I also saw someone who was fragile and scared of things and who was able to hurt.  I saw someone who had achieved great things and still wanted to achieve more, and that she will achieve more.  I wasn’t making that up or fantasising or romanticising her life – they were things that actually happened.

Those traits I listed meant I wanted to be at least her friend, and if the opportunity arose, more than that, because in a loving relationship (romantic or not) focused on the giving rather than just the taking, I couldn’t think of a much better partner in crime.  If I settled for “just a girl” stripped down to only gender and biology, I could have been settling for a mass murderer burning up with hate!

So maybe those traits are what made her “just a girl” rather than a fantasy but it’s surely far better to think of her complexly than essentially not to recognise her as having any personality or capability?  To do otherwise feels dehumanising and damaging to me.

But what if someone did think that they’d found the real person…?


“…Never Quite Perfectly”

One of the aspects of the book that I found interesting was the reactions of Margo and Q to each other’s help.

When Q and Margo have the argument about who’s benefit the 11 deeds were for, Q claims it was just Margo’s revenge while Margo claims she did it to bring Q out of his shell.  When Q finds Margo, Margo thinks Q did it so he could be her knight in shining armour whereas Q, by this stage, did it because he wanted to know Margo was OK and to help her.

I thought it was interesting how both saw a weakness that they wanted to help the other with, but neither could see that that was what the other was doing – helping.

At this juncture, I need to refer to Wisdom of Joey Tribbiani to provide a caveat in the form of his assertion that there is no such thing as A Selfless Good Dead.  When I thought I was making my friend happy, it made me happy too.  I enjoyed the time I spent with her and, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have done it.  I was proud of the fact that I could be there for a friend but, as I found out, pride really does come before a fall.

It is not always easy for someone to see the depth of the selflessness.

I think about what would have happened if someone had have walked up to Margo in the school corridor and said “I think all this is just an act.  I think you’re scared of just being a normal person – being just a girl.” I think she would have castigated them.  I don’t think she wanted them to see that normal person.  When my best friend finally decided that I was too messed up / I wasn’t worth her effort / I was worth her effort, but not as much as the other guys she was actually dating at the time, she told me that people, including her and I, are full of opposites.  While this may well be true, people don’t like others seeing a strength and suggesting that it is a cover-up for a weakness.

Instead of Margo thinking that Q was a wimp and just telling him to grow a set, she took him out and tried to build his confidence in a manner that was kind of obiter dictum to the main event, buried underneath what was easily visible at the surface.  Green references this sort of thing himself in the book when he talks about the cracked vessels showing their contents.

I also saw someone who was fragile and scared of things and who was able to hurt.  I could never tell her that I saw this for fear of it being a self-perpetuating circle, but I thought I saw the opposites.  I saw someone who had done incredible things but sometimes suspected that some of the reasons for doing them fell a lot deeper than she would let on.

So I would sometimes try to make my actions look selfish (occasionally they were, and that gave me a suitable precedent to use at other times) because I felt that to do otherwise might mean that they actually achieved the opposite effect, but sometimes that can go too far and it backfires.  In my case, it would have been like Q thinking Margo was absolutely mad and ringing the police to report her indiscretions at the end of the night.

There’s a phrase that has become pertinent to me a few times over the last few weeks, and that is that if you tell the truth you don’t need to remember the lies.  Maybe in me trying to do my best for someone and get a benefit out of that myself, I might have been my true self but not showing that properly.  I presented a self-deprecating facade that maybe didn’t belittle my strengths necessarily but did exaggerate my perceived weaknesses.

I was trying to be Margo but presented myself as Q to do that, which probably highlights the point that we are, indeed, full of opposites and that makes it hard for people to see who we really are.  In Margo’s own words:

I can’t be you. You can’t be me. You can imagine another well—but never quite perfectly, you know?



What did I learn from my journey into Young Adult Fiction?  Firstly, I learnt that it is actually possible for me to read an entire book!

Was I in love with the idea of my friend? I honestly still don’t know, because I still don’t get it.  I looked forward to seeing her, I looked forward to talking to her.  I wasn’t planning 10 years or 10 months in to the future and needing to take someone with me into that, relying on showing them that I can be enough of what they want in the interim to make sure they’ll come with me.  I was planning the next take-away, the next good morning message, the next day trip or cinema visit or breakfast or beverage or the next bath bomb or bunch of flowers – the next thing that I could do that would make her smile.

The whole book is trying to find Margo, both literally and metaphorically.  Even when Q realised that Margo wasn’t who or what he thought she was, he still wanted to find her.  I think that says a lot.  I might not have known her properly, but I saw enough facts to make me want to know my friend more.  I still don’t know if this means I dehumanised her because I can’t see where I did things different to what her other friends or boyfriends have done.  This is where I’m really struggling with the breakdown of the relationship, as much as the fact I can’t see her anymore.  I was doing normal things and being destructive all at once.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if she loved only the idea of me because of what I was able to give to her even if, ultimately, she felt I couldn’t give her everything she needed.  Sometimes we think we see in others what we can’t see in ourselves.

Was I in love with her?  In defining whether one is “in love” in the romantic sense, I think it’s actually important to note the words that often appear either side of the main word – “in” and “with”.  The characteristics I mentioned previously in defining love can apply to any “loving” relationship (OK, maybe not the bit about sharing desserts).

“In” is what separates the love family members and friends have for each other in to the romantic feeling (and maybe this is also where the desserts come in).  But to be truly in love and for the relationship not to be one sided you need to be there in partnership “with” someone.  The feelings need to be mutual and the love needs to be received as well as given.

The thought of being in love with her crossed my mind.  The pain and confusion I feel from our situation sometimes suggests I was.  But by definition, being “with” someone means they are there too, in the same place, and she decided she didn’t want to be.

But did I love her? Most definitely, more than she’ll probably know and probably more than some people who have been given the opportunity to demonstrate that “love” in a deeper romantic relationship without having to hold themselves back in the friend zone while someone else was seen as more.  My friend never got to see the real me but, unlike Q and Margo, didn’t want to either.

Everyone I’ve spoken to says our relationship was very one sided.  They ask me what I got from it, and all I can say is “a friend”.  Even professionals think I’ve been used, even when I try to present the most balanced picture I can of what happened to try to defend her, and they can’t understand why I’m hurting so much because they would be angry.  They can’t see that any love came in my direction, even in the way our relationship ended.  I probably agree that things were uneven in terms of quantity at least, but I thought we were always great friends so one of us giving more never seemed important.

Most importantly, would I have done anything differently with my own relationship with my friend?  Yes.  I wish she could have known when I was showing my own weakness with some things that it was because I thought it was protecting hers, whether I was right or wrong. I don’t know how to achieve that in future, but I hope I find the solution.

I wish she realised I was planning the present, and not the future.  I was living every moment.

One of the thoughts I’ve had while I’ve been writing this over the last week or two is receipt of the action – the help, show of affection etc.  I’m a problem solver at heart and I struggle to just provide sympathy when I think that there’s something (NB. not someone) that I can fix.  I maybe need to learn to judge when someone wants help and when they don’t, when they just want someone to know that they’re broken.  I was already aware of some actions being inappropriate due to external factors but even with those, they felt inappropriate not because of where it left me, but because of where it could have left her.

Other than that, though, I wouldn’t change a thing.  I still want to be loving and I still want to do nice things for people.  I don’t think anything should stop me doing that.


No you don’t have to wear your best fake smile
Don’t have to stand there and burn inside
Oh oh oh if you don’t like it

She’s working late and making eyes at the door
She’s sick of everybody up on her floor
She wants the sun in her eyes but all she gets is ignored

She used to put it out and get it all back
But now she’s slipping trying to carry the act
She’s sweating under the lights, now she’s beginning to crack

No you don’t have to wear your best fake smile
Don’t have to stand there and burn inside
Oh oh oh if you don’t like it

And you don’t have to care so don’t pretend
Nobody needs a best fake friend
Oh oh oh don’t hide it

No hesitation now she gets up and walks
She thinks of all the pain and pride that it cost
She empties all the tip jars and won’t get back what she lost

Outside the window with two fingers to show
She lifts her head up just to blow out the smoke
She doesn’t have to look back to know where she’s gotta go

No you don’t have to wear your best fake smile
Don’t have to stand there and burn inside
Oh oh oh if you don’t like it

And you don’t have to care so don’t pretend
Nobody needs a best fake friend
Oh oh oh don’t hide it

If you don’t bleed it you don’t need it anymore
If you don’t need it get up and leave it on the floor
No more believing like it’s a voice you can’t ignore
If you don’t need it you don’t need it no

And you don’t have to wear your best fake smile
Don’t have to stand there and burn inside
Oh oh oh no if you don’t like it

And you don’t have to care so don’t pretend

Nobody needs a best fake friend
Oh oh oh don’t hide itNo you don’t have to wear your best fake smile
Don’t have to stand there and burn inside
Oh oh oh if you don’t like itOh oh oh no if you don’t like it
Best Fake Smile by James Bay

Comments 8

  1. Thank you for sharing….you are profound and your honesty reflects such courage…is so admirable and inspiring…thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Wow, this was very interesting. There’s a lot in this I connect with and find interesting. I think we always have our own idea of ourselves, and a feeling that another might not be seeing us as we truly are, or seeing something else, what they want to see. We all have different personas though, that we actively cultivate or not, and perhaps we are not always even aware of what we show another person. I’m not sure I’m entirely understanding what happened with your friend, this is the first post of yours I’ve read, but I liked that you described your behaviour as being in the moment, living in the present and and, on the whole, didn’t regret anything. That’s a very good thing. It sounds like a complex friendship/relationship. But, one you’ve learnt a lot from – that’s rather special. I think that is common and understandable that when males and females come together – it can get complex like this. And yes, unfortunately, capable of hurting each other. Sometimes we can confuse connection/friendship with love/attraction, and possibly that’s what this was. Even though she’s hurting, I’m sure she has learnt some valuable lessons from this. I think you’ll both look back on this and realise what important an important teacher the other has been. I hope so.

    • Hi Carlie, thank you for your words! On one level it was the easiest relationship but on another, yes, very complicated. I’ve explained it to people who specialise in that sort of thing, and even they don’t understand. I think this was one key to a lot of it, so worth having a look at. Unfortunately there’s only one person who will ever be able to tell me the faults of my ways and she has no interest in it, other than telling me that they were there!

  3. This entry is very interesting. I don’t know why, but this is exactly what I needed to read at this very moment. 🙂

    “The thought of being in love with her crossed my mind. The pain and confusion I feel from our situation sometimes suggests I was. But by definition, being “with” someone means they are there too, in the same place, and she decided she didn’t want to be.” — THIS! </3

    • Hi Kaye, thanks for your comment and pleased you got something from the post. I write about my own experiences only but it’s great that someone can take something from it and think about it and that maybe it helps them out!

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