The book is narrated by Quentin Jacobsen, a 17-year-old close to finishing high school in Orlando, Florida. Quentin is a little in love with the free-spirited girl next door. The difference between the two is demonstrated by an incident when they were children. They come across a dead man by a tree. Quentin is horrified, wants to run back and inform the adults, but Margo moves to the corpse to have a closer look. That night she climbs into Quentin’s room through the window. She has been doing a bit of detecting and tells Quentin that the man committed suicide. “Maybe all the strings inside him broke”, she says.
In high school, they drift apart. Quentin is still fascinated by Margo, but she has other friends—Becca and Lacey—and is dating a guy called Jason, while Quentin hangs out with the guys in the band, Ben and Radar. Until one night when Margo taps on his window, talks him into “borrowing” his mother’s car and takes him off on a night’s adventure. She is out for revenge and a bit of fun: Jason has been cheating on her with Becca. The night involves dead fish, paint, Vaseline, and breaking into SeaWorld in the early hours of the morning.
The next morning, Quentin cannot wait to get to school and see Margo. But she does not show up, either that day or the next. Margo has run away from home before, leaving clues to her whereabouts—she does not get on with her parents. Although her parents dismiss her disappearance as an attention-grabbing tactic, they eventually call the police.
But Margo is battling her own demons and is more fragile than any of them realize. Looking down at Orlando on that eventful night, Margo calls it a paper town: “All those paper people in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. … Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All things paper-thin and paper-frail.” In an echo of what she said about the dead man all those years ago, she says of Jason’s and Becca’s betrayal, “It was the last string. It was a lame string, for sure, but it was the only one I had left, and every paper girl needs at least one string, right?”
This image of strings being cut, leaving children adrift, runs through the book. Detective Otis Warren, who is investigating Margo’s disappearance, tells Quentin about kids like Margo: “These kids, they’re like tied-down helium balloons. They strain against the string and they strain against it, and then something happens, and that string gets cut, and they just float away. … Once that string gets cut, kid, you can’t uncut it.”
Quentin is convinced that, this time, instead of leaving clues for her parents, she has left them for him. With a bit of help from Ben, Radar and Lacey, he tries to decipher them, and the trail leads them on a road trip in search of Margo.
The book is really about finding someone you love—not just physically but in the sense of really seeing them for who they are. Quentin only starts to see Margo as a real person after she has been gone for a while. He had idolized her for so long that he only saw the daring, larger-than-life person he had created. Everyone had their own version of Margo, and none of them encompassed the complexity of the whole person. But the search for Margo brings Quentin closer to understanding her—and himself. At the end of the book, he says: “I could see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness.”
I loved this book. I have to say I grinned through the first couple of chapters. Margo dominates the book although she is only there for a short time—she is present in her absence, so to speak. It takes you back to what it was to be 17 again, when the world was open with possibilities. John Green mixes the humour, the ups and downs of being a teenager with insights on how we relate to one another.