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Quentin lives in Jefferson Park, Florida, a subdivision outside of Orlando. He has always been infatuated with his next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman. One day, when Quentin and Margaret were nine, they were playing in a park when they discovered a dead, bloodied man slumped against a tree. Though Quentin’s instinct is to run away, Margo is curious and explores the body. Quentin’s parents call 911. The next day, Margo shows up at Quentin’s window and tells him that she has conducted an investigation around the neighborhood to find out about the body. She’s discovered that the man’s name was Robert Joyner and that he had committed suicide after getting a divorce. To explain why he had killed himself, Margo suggests that maybe “all the strings inside of him broke.”
At 7:17 in the morning, Quentin catches a ride to school in his mom’s minivan. Though that would be early for most kids, it’s late for Quentin, because he and his friends typically hang out near the band room and talk before school starts. Nearly all of Quentin’s friends are in band, though Quentin is not. He and his mom discuss prom on the ride over. Quentin’s parents are both therapists, and they try to keep all lines of communication very open between themselves and Quentin. Quentin is not excited about prom, but his best friend, Ben, is obsessed with figuring out a way to get a date with a “honeybunny,” his generic term for a woman. Ben informs Quentin that Radar, their other best friend, already has a date. Quentin gets distracted when he sees Margo Roth Spiegelman with her boyfriend, Jase, and he daydreams about her adventurous life. Quentin and Ben meet up with Radar, who, as usual, is working on Omnictionary, a Wikipedia-like website that Radar checks and edits obsessively. Radar confirms that he’s going to prom.
Chuck Parson, a stereotypical meathead, asks Quentin what he knows about Margo and Jase, and Quentin truthfully tells him that he knows nothing. At lunch, Angela, Radar’s girlfriend, asks Ben and Quentin why Radar has never invited her over. When Ben and Quentin relay this information to Radar, Radar says it’s because his parents own the world’s largest collection of black Santas. Quentin suggests that Radar tell Angela up front about the collection, which includes paintings, sculptures, and even Pez dispensers shaped like black Santas.
After school, Quentin has a snack, has dinner with his parents, and chats online with his friends. Suddenly, for the first time since they were nine, Margo shows up outside his bedroom window.
Margo is wearing black face paint and a black hoodie. She tells Quentin that she needs him to drive her around that night, because she needs eleven things, five of which involve a getaway man. She promises him that she won’t ask him to commit any felonies. At first, Quentin refuses to help. While Margo is trying to convince him, her dad yells at her to get back inside, and she climbs out his window to appease him, but first promises Quentin that she’ll be back in a minute. Quentin decides that he will drive her after all, and gets the keys to his mom’s minivan. When she returns, Margo announces that their first stop is the grocery store, and tells Quentin that tonight will be the best night of his life.
Margo gives Quentin a shopping list for the grocery store. Quentin notes that she has randomly capitalized words in the middle of phrases, which is a signature of Margo’s style. Her shopping list contains a bizarre assortment of items which include three whole catfish and a can of blue spray paint. After the grocery store, they go to Wal-Mart and buy a gadget call The Club that locks a car’s steering wheel into place. Quentin asks Margo to explain why they need The Club, but she dodges the question by complaining about the mundanity of planning for the future. They briefly flirt.
Paper Towns is written from the first-person perspective of Quentin, a senior in high school. Except for the Prologue, which is a flashback to when Quentin was nine, Paper Towns is set entirely in the few weeks leading up to and including the main characters’ high school graduation. The novel begins with a quick sketch of Quentin’s normal life: he goes to school, hangs out with his friends, gets picked on, and comes home. But life as Quentin knows it is almost immediately turned on its head.
The book’s Prologue sets the stage for Quentin’s entire mindset about Margo and about their relationship. Although he thinks of himself as having a special bond with her, Quentin idolizes Margo and puts her on a pedestal, and he has been content to worship her from afar for the past nine years. When Margo appears at his window for the first time since the night when they’d found the dead body, Quentin’s relationship with Margo is suddenly reignited. Margo claims that she needs Quentin to drive her physically around Orlando, but in every other sense, Margo is in the driver’s seat throughout their whole expedition. She doesn’t so much ask Quentin as insist to Quentin that he will accompany her. Even though he initially balks, Quentin and Margo both know that Margo has Quentin wrapped around her finger. Margo manipulates Quentin in two main ways. First, she makes him feel important and special because she has chosen him to be her partner in crime. Second, she strings him along throughout the process, only revealing each subsequent part of plan as they go along. Both Quentin and the reader are kept in suspense throughout the whole adventure. Part of the adventure is actually executing Margo’s wild schemes, but part of the adventure is also hanging on to see what Margo will come up with next.
The Prologue also establishes Paper Towns as a mystery novel. In the very first scene of the novel, the main characters come across a dead body, and they have no idea how it got there. Although Quentin and Margo are two normal kids living in a regular suburb, they have also been placed directly into a classic detective story setting. If a corpse can turn up in the middle of a banal subdivision, anything is possible. Discovering Robert Joyner sets the stage for Quentin and Margo to live life inside a mystery story. Even the dead man’s name, Robert Joyner, is a homophone of “joiner,” suggesting the bond that is forged between Quentin and Margo by finding this corpse. Margo immediately takes it upon herself to investigate the crime scene and to figure out what has happened.
On a slightly grimmer note, the Prologue also introduces the possibility of death into the novel. For the most part, the kids in the story lead fairly sheltered and benign suburban lives, but Robert Joyner’s corpse brings out the grisly underbelly of Orlando. Margo’s description of strings breaking inside Robert Joyner is an image that resonates throughout the novel, and the scene informs Margo and Quentin’s coming-of-age.
Margo casts herself in the role of superhero ninja for their adventure, and Quentin readily falls into her vision of the events of the night. She exaggerates the drama of the whole situation and turns simple plans of mischief and revenge into a night of deep mystery and intrigue. Margo knows that she is fulfilling Quentin’s fantasies by appearing at his window. Indeed, she tells him as much, insisting that it will be the best night of his life. Quentin is a biased narrator, and since he idolizes Margo, he portrays the night as a surreal, fantastic adventure. Instead of getting frustrated with Margo, or wondering why she has suddenly chosen to bestow her attention upon Quentin, he relishes being pulled into her scheme.