Time in John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska is marked by the number of days remaining until an event which, before it occurs, remains unknown to the reader. The first section, entitled “before,” starts 136 days prior to said event, when Florida-native Miles Halter leaves his friendless teenaged existence to attend boarding school in Alabama. A rising high school junior, Miles’ naivety and lack of experience, as well as his penchant for biographies of great writers and memorizing the last words of the deceased and famous, make him a social outcast in his Florida hometown. Upon arriving at Culver Creek Prep, his father’s alma mater, Miles considers himself fortunate for the opportunity to forge new friendships, to embark upon “his great Perhaps.” He quickly comes to the realization, however, that his personality does not readily lend itself to great first impressions especially among his peers. But then again, the students at Culver Creek Prep are not Miles’ average set of peers.
His roommate Chip, referred to by close friends as the Colonel, is a mathematical genius from an Alabama trailer park. A scholarship student, the Colonel has a score to settle with the “Weekday Warriors,” the hair-gel-loving upper crust students who board at Culver Creek Monday through Friday and return to the comfort of their parents’ air-conditioned mansions every weekend. The Colonel dons Miles “Pudge” on account of the later’s exceptional thinness. Though Miles initially suspects that Chip regards him with a sense of apathy, Chip demonstrates his steadfast friendship to Miles on their very first night at school when the weekday warriors subject Culver Creek’s newest student to a cruel prank, tossing a duct-tape-mummified Miles into the nearby lake. The Colonel quickly involves his friends, the enigmatic, devastatingly gorgeous Alaska and the wannabe-rapper Takumi, in plotting a retaliatory mission on the weekday warriors, cementing Miles’ loyalty to his newfound friends.
Culver Creek becomes a new and beloved home to Miles. The prep school is where he finds intellectual stimulation in the classroom and where he stumbles upon a rag tag circle of devoted friends outside of it. His “great Perhaps” unravels at Culver Creek where, between arduous study sessions, Miles has his first physical experience with a female, partakes in the prank wars that govern interaction among Culver Creek’s various social groups, learns to love Strawberry Hill wine and cigarettes, ponders religious theory, and falls deeply in love with Alaska. Beautiful and intelligent, witty and staunchly feminist, fearless and cunning, Alaska immediately becomes the object of Miles’ obsession. Although she has a boyfriend back at home, Alaska takes a distinct liking to Miles which only fuels his fantasy image of her. She draws Miles quite willingly into her mysterious world, subject to sudden mood swings, impulsive adventures, and self-destructive decisions.
Amidst the rather idyllic circumstances in which Miles finds himself at Culver Creek, a tragedy occurs, blindsiding Culver Creek and changing everything Miles came to know at his new school. It is this turning point, to which Green has been faithfully counting down since the first page, that marks the passage of time in Miles’ life. The remainder of his days are identified in reference to their distance after the tragic event which irrevocably alters the safe world of Culver Creek as loved by all of its students. It shakes the comfort of Culver Creek’s students and throws into question all that Miles came to know at his new school. As he learns about three great religious traditions in the classroom, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, Miles is forced to confront in his own life some of the central questions around which these religions are structured. The purpose of suffering, the nature of forgiveness, and the meaning of life become pertinent concerns rather than mere curriculum to Miles when tragedy strikes close to home.
Looking for Alaska is an award-winning young adult novel that could easily be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Though it does grow heavy following the tragedy that strikes Culver Creek Prep, the novel is alluring and engrossing, inviting readers to discover the joys, pains, hilarity, and adventures of boarding school right alongside Miles. Green’s young characters possess intelligence, wisdom and ingenuity beyond their years, which are only further fueled after the life-altering event occurs. But these students also have a depth and range of feeling which make it easy to care about them all, to be moved by their sorrows and lifted by their joys. In Miles’ fresh voice, Green tells a universal story veiled under the uncertainty and freedom of youth. Looking for Alaska is gorgeously composed and deeply satisfying, so much so that I was tempted to tear out the book’s last three heartbreakingly beautiful pages in order to revisit and savor them again and again.