I know Paper Towns has gotten a lot of comments for being very similar to Looking for Alaska, but I don’t think that’s fair. Alaska is a wholly unique character that readers aspire to be and want to know, all at once. She is a hurricane. Margo Roth Spiegelman, however, is quite different.
Margo’s very hard to define, especially because we only see her through the eyes of a boy in love with her and through the comments of her parents, who don’t understand her, and her classmates, who idolize her. In fact, the thing throughout the book that is the most clear about her is her unclear personality.
At the end, Q says he can finally see Margo for who she is in the darkness. This parallels how her absence finally allowed him to view her as more than an idea. Two very different kinds of not being able to see her that help lead to a deepened understanding of her. Physical absence led to a realization, visual one led to comprehension.
Really, the whole book seems to explore the different ways that something or someone can be lost, or missing. Is Margo lost if she’s the only one who knows where she is? Does the fact that she wasn’t in a ‘real’ town make her lost? Was she ever truly missing, given that her presence was felt almost as strongly as if she were there? Even Algoe, being a paper town, represents the epitome of lost-ness, since it has no true physical location. But we come to find out that doesn’t mean much. For Margo, this paper town is far more real than the one she left behind. Margo wasn’t lost in Agloe, because it was her intended destination. On the contrary, it seems to be where she finds herself. According to this book, then, it seems the interpretation of ‘lost’ depends on the character doing the interpreting. And I think in order to be missing, the person has to be missed, so ‘missing’ is yet another subjective term that depends on the person.
The irony of this comes out in the scene where Margo’s mother is filing a missing persons report – Mrs. Spiegelman doesn’t miss her daughter at all. Quite a bit of cosmic irony in that scene. (The phrase “run away” is also a misnomer in this case, because Margo ran TO somewhere. Run away implies that there’s something to run from, and all Margo wanted to escape was her own hypocrisy.) Neither of Margo’s parents miss her – at least, not in the most common sense of the word. They completely don’t understand her, and thus it could be argued that they miss the point of much of her actions. Never once do they communicate anything but annoyance at her leaving, though.
Several other kids at the school express similar sentiments. Ben is particularly annoyed with Margo, as well as Lacey, to an extent. They’re stuck seeing her as a paper girl with responsibilities to other people, responsibilities to Stay Put and Be Successful. The future that Margo tells Q to shoot her if she ever achieves is the one that they think she owes them. It is precisely this failing of theirs that inspires her to hide her true self and eventually leave. They don’t miss her as much as they’re baffled by her and her absence, and probably irritated by her ability to even disappear in a grand and different way.
To Q, however, Margo was definitely missing. He missed her, almost more than he liked her while she was there. He devotes more time and effort to her than any of his actual friends. When he accuses her at the end of wanting to see if the school still spun around her axis, he was talking about himself. He revolved around her. The public image of her, yes, but also just HER. After she left, her image was left behind. Q had about as much interaction with her as always (almost none). But without HER, it’s different. I think this is how Q discovers that to imagine her as a one-dimensional paper girl is unfair, because if he isn’t satisfied with that image, than she surely can’t be.
It’s like Inception. Cobb does his damnedest to recreate his wife in his thoughts after her death, but finally he has to admit he’s failed completely. As he puts it, “…I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all you perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough.”
Q has an almost identical realization. He likes Margo best for her quirks, her idiosyncrasies, the things he could never imagine. I think his journey to Agloe, then, represents a kind of pilgrimage, almost penance for his injustice to her. When he gets there and learns she was similarly unfair to and surprised by him, it allows him to see her as she is, unaltered by his guilt or awe. He had to lose that intangible HERness, which he couldn’t label or define, to appreciate it.
So no. I don’t think Margo’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I think she’s the most flawed person in the book. Any MPD-ish qualities are outweighed by her imperfections. I also don’t think she’s the focus of the book. It’s through the window of looking at her that other characters learn about themselves, as Radar observes about the Gigolo game. I think Margo’s a symbol, like Moby Dick or Gatsby’s car. She’s less of a person and more of a journey. She’s an exploration, an empty vessel that other characters and even readers project their own perceptions and ideas onto. She is us, and through her, we can discover ourselves.