Miles Halter—for all intents and purposes —is a bit of a social misfit. He has few friends—much to the chagrin of his doting parents. Feeling stifled and like an outsider in his Florida high school, he convinces his parents he wants to attend Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama (his father’s alma mater). Although his parents aren’t quite sure why he wants to leave, he explains it by sharing Rabelais’s last words: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” (Miles’s greatest eccentricity is that he “collects” people’s last words.)
At Culver Creek, he is quickly befriended by his roommate Chip Martin (known on campus as The Colonel). A forceful personality who is one of the masterminds behind elaborate pranks, the Colonel includes Miles (now christened “Pudge”) in his circle of friends—which includes a Japanese exchange student named Takumi and an attractive girl named Alaska. The Colonel fills Pudge in on the social hierarchy of Culver Creek—the boarders vs. the Weekend Warriors (the rich kids who go home on the weekend), how to outfox The Eagle (the stern headmaster), and how to camouflage smoking and hide liquor. The friends navigate the school year together—weathering difficult classes, exploring their sexuality, planning pranks, and feuding with the Weekend Warriors.
Miles quickly falls into life at Culver Creek—and into love with Alaska. Never having had a girlfriend, he finds Alaska fascinating. Not only is she beautiful, but she is a free spirit—alternately fascinating and moody, friendly then standoffish. And he’s not the only one with feelings for Alaska. Her captivating personality and good looks has more than one boy lusting after her. Although she has a boyfriend who she says she loves, that doesn’t stop her from flirting and wrapping Miles around her little finger. But Alaska clearly has some troubles in her past that lead to emotional outbursts that confuse and frighten her friends.
After one particularly drunken night, a tragedy occurs that leaves the circle of friends rocked to their core. Amid the grief, confusion and guilt that follows, Miles and his friends look for answers to the mystery of Alaska and get a taste of what the Great Perhaps might hold.
First off, a funny little story about how I got this book. I had been hearing about this book on a bunch of different book blogs and everyone kept raving about it so I thought “Well, I’ll check it out.” I put it on my wish list at Paperback Swap, and my wish was granted almost immediately. But when the book came, it appeared to be a travel book about the state of Alaska. “That’s funny,” I thought, “This sure doesn’t seem like the book everyone was talking about.” And it wasn’t. I had the author wrong! I’d gotten Looking for Alaska by Peter Jenkins
Anyway, I eventually did get the right book. However, I wasn’t as enthralled by it as other bloggers seem to be. In fact, the book didn’t move me all that much. Much of my problem was I just didn’t fall in love with the characters. It felt forced to me that Miles collected last words—perhaps only a device to make him somewhat interesting? Alaska struck me as a bit unstable and a tease. The Colonel was the most interesting character to me—but only when forced to choose among the main cast of characters. Takumi barely registers except for the role he plays in the end. So the tragedy at the core of the book didn’t really resonate with me. I didn’t feel the grief and agony because I just didn’t care all that much.
Another problem for me was that you know something big is coming so you’re somewhat prepared for it. The first part of the book (Before) is a countdown (one hundred thirty six days before, eighty days before, one day before). Then the big tragedy occurs. Then the book starts counting upwards (one day after, thirty days after). To me, this device led me to anticipate what was coming so it didn’t quite have the emotional impact it might have had if I had been surprised.
I did try to view this book as a young adult might have in order to give a more impartial review, but I think there have been better books that deal with this same basic topic. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson comes to mind—although that might be geared to a much younger set of readers.) The thing is: This book just didn’t do it for me. Although the writing is fine, I was just not drawn into the book in a way that made it memorable for me.
My Final Recommendation
I personally didn’t find this book as emotionally charged and powerful as so many other reviewers indicated. In fact, I was left a bit cold by it and finished it with a shrug. However, I seem to be in the minority on this one so you might want to seek other opinions. However, if you are the parent of a teen or young adult and would like to initiate a discussion about death, then perhaps this book might be a good choice. I don’t know — maybe I should have read the Peter Jenkins book instead!