Imperfect romance in the City of Love

Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins (2010)

Opening line: “Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amelie and Moulin Rouge.

Anna’s divorced parents decide she should spend her senior year at a boarding school in Paris. Why? No one’s sure, especially not Anna. And she’s not too thrilled about it either. She muses that she perhaps would have been thrilled by the option of a year in Paris, but not by the demand. After all, she has a bff, a job, and a cute boy to pine over all back in Atlanta. Instead, she’s in the City of Lights with not a friend to her name and the most minimal knowledge of French (we’re talking oui and merci).

Fortunately, her next door neighbor in the dorm is super nice and Anna has a group of friends almost immediately. Also fortunately, there’s a super cute, british-accented boy who is part of said friend group. Unfortunately, he already has a girlfriend AND the friendly next door neighbor is also in love with him.

You might be thinking, this sounds a bit formulaic and a bit cheesy, and you’d be right. It is that. And it might be easy to write this one off as just that. However, as a girl who pined after a boy who had a girlfriend during her own senior year in high school, this felt SPOT ON emotionally. The constant confusion of liking him, feeling guilty for liking him, feeling sure that you and he would make a much better couple than him and his current girlfriend, feeling inadequate for not being enough for him, etc. And I think teenage readers will connect to these feelings as well.

Not high-brow, inspiring literature, but relevant and fun escapism romance. 1.5 stars

Another South Carolinian Debutante

Girls in Trucks, by Katie Crouch (2008)

Opening Line: “If you are white, are a girl or boy between the ages of nine and twelve, and, according to a certain committee of mothers, are good enough to associate with Charleston’s other good girls and boys, than Wednesday night is a busy night for you.”

For some reason, the opening line to Katie Crouch’s debut novel reminds me of the opening line to Pride and Prejudice. They’re really not that similar, but the impression is somewhat complementary: If you grow up in this society, you will be paired with someone and you will like it. Pairing up is not an option, but a necessity. And that is what seems to plague poor Sarah Walters throughout her life (and the life of this novel).

Born in Charleston, South Carolina in what feels like the late 70s/early 80s, Sarah is a hesitant debutante at best. Part of the Charleston Camellias, a prestigious society of ladies, she is expected to become a good Southern woman, following the path laid out for her by generations of previous Camellias. Instead, Sarah follows in the path of her older sister Eloise, and jets up north for college to get away from it all. While this seems like a whole new wonderful world to Sarah, reality sets in, and she finds that a self-directed path is not as easy as she hoped. And despite her desire to get away from the debutante matchmaking, her failed relationships and search for the perfect man dominate her life anyway. It isn’t until a family tragedy brings Sarah home that she begins to see that maybe a life in the South wouldn’t be so terrible after all.

I was drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover, and as a brand new South Carolinian. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, and was unnecessarily complicated by strange shifts in point of view/voice. However, Crouch does give us snippets of unexpected humor sprinkled where they are needed to keep us from spiraling into Sarah’s despair, which helped keep me turning the pages.

1.5 stars

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad cow world

Going Bovine, by Libba Bray (2009)

Opening line: “The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.”

Oh boy, this book. Where to begin.

I guess let’s begin with a summary. Cameron is your average dissatisfied high schooler, just trying to get by with the minimal effort. His parents and twin sister seem uninteretsed and disconnected, and Cam isn’t motivated to fix anything, until he gets a serious health diagnosis: Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, more commonly known as “mad-cow disease.” This perfectly sums up the contradictions of this book. It’s a whirlwind combination of perfectly mundane ordinary high school personalities and reactions, mixed with the absurd. I mean, really, who gets mad-cow disease?? Then things get weirder. Cam starts having what he’s sure are hallucinations, involving a pink-haired punk angel named Dulcie, fire giants that are hunting him, and a speaking garden gnome. Dulcie convinces Cam to go on a wild journey to find Dr. X, the only person who can cure him. He must also bring along a kid from school, a hypochondriac dwarf named Gonzo. Cameron decides he has nothing to lose, so off they go.

The whole story supposedly parallels Don Quixote (although I don’t remember much from when we read it in Spanish senior year), which Cameron is reading at school before his diagnosis. It’s an epic roadtrip novel, a journey of self-discovery, mixed with the super weird. I don’t know. It has great elements and hilarious characters, but something about it… I had a really hard time getting into it and then also finishing it. After listening to the whole first section of my audiobook, I realized I had already started listening to it the year before, but had moved on to something else. I’m trying to figure out why it was awarded the Printz, because they usually know what they’re talking about, but I’m just not sure. I think most teens wouldn’t hold out for the whole thing, as I didn’t the first time around. I think it’s just a little too off the rocker for me to connect with. Those fire giants, man.

Anyway, I did finish it eventually, although I had to renew it (which I hardly ever do with audiobooks). Maybe I’m not a huge Libba Bray fan. This is the third Libba book I read (Great and Terrible Beauty and Beauty Queens), and for both of them I thought I would like them more than I actually did. (Beauty Queens was the best of the three, though.) I’m still holding out hope for The Diviners, though, because it looks real good.

1 star

A Rom-Com, of the intellectual and relatively depressing variety…

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

Opening line: “To start with, look at all the books.”

It’s hard to deny my attraction to a book that begins this way. A coworker of mine several years ago told me that as a former English major, I should definitely read The Marriage Plot. She was right — it’s got the fixings to a novel I should love: literary references out the wazoo, multiple character perspectives, a sense of epic storytelling (crossing time periods and oceans), and a complicated romance.

Madeleine Hanna is an English major working on her thesis about the “marriage plot” of literature’s great novelists, like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontes. But while her intellectual mind is caught up in the romantic structure of the page, her real life romance is much more complicated, featuring two very different gentlemen. The first is Mitchell, who was “friend-zoned” freshmen year but still holds a torch for our heroine, while the second is Leonard, a mysterious biology student who intrigues and enchants Madeleine like no one has before. And while this might sound like the makings of a very common modern-day marriage plot, Eugenides does what he does best by complicating things with intense, intricately-crafted characters. Mitchell heads off to Europe and India after college with his roommate to figure out what the hell he’s doing with his life with or without Madeleine, while Madeleine and Leonard deal with Leonard’s apparent bipolar disorder, or as it was known in the 1980s when this tale is set, manic depression.

I liked this book. I wouldn’t stretch it to love, but, like I said before, what Jeffrey Eugenides does, he does well (see my review of his previous book Middlesex). I admire his character development, the vastness of his landscape, both in terms of time and place, and his way of piecing together stories in a way that adds depth and intrigue.

1.5 stars, edging to 2.