3.23.2011

Anna and the French Kiss

I know that we're only a few months into 2011, but I find it hard to believe that I'll read another novel as perfect as Anna and the French Kiss, the debut novel of Stephanie Perkins. I'm not even limiting that statement to the young adult market. I can't call it the best book of the year, because it was published in December of 2010, but I highly doubt I'll read anything this fabulous for a very long time (or if I do, I'll be very lucky, because this is really that good). If only I had read it when it was published! I would have had the perfect Christmas present for all my reading friends -- now I simply have to hope they don't talk to each other as the year ticks by and I slowly parcel out surprisingly familiar-looking birthday presents. It would be weird to just say to them, "Surprise! I bought you your birthday present in March!" for each and every one of them, right? ... No seriously, right? Because I could still do it...

In any case, Anna and the French Kiss is a deceptively simple teenage love story where the emphasis is on storytelling and character development. Stephanie Perkins doesn't go for the bells and whistles of ridiculous situations; instead she crafts a narrator that any young female reader doesn't simply want to read about, she wants to BE. Perkins, unlike so many other well-meaning YA writers, also seems to understand the difference between *telling* the reader that the main character is smart and funny... and actually *demonstrating* that she's smart and funny by virtue of her words and actions. That said, Anna's not a genius or some perfect creation, she's a realistic teenager who makes the occasional poor decision, but readers are always on her side because we've come to love her.

Anna Oliphant (called "Banana Elephant" by her best friend Brigette) has been sent to the School of America in Paris (fondly called SOAP by its students) by her nouveau riche father for her senior year of high school. Her parents are divorced and after the break seven years ago, dad dropped all dreams of being a great writer and sold out to become a best-seller, cranking out novels that the female market seems to gobble up, where the plot always seems to include an Illness and Doomed Love. Dad's stated reasoning for shipping his eldest off to Paris involves showing her the world and giving her a great experience, but Anna is convinced he's doing this so *he* can appear worldly and cultured by having a daughter at an international boarding school. Pulled away from her family and friends, Anna's now in a country where she doesn't speak the language and doesn't know a soul. Thankfully, while high school will always suck on some level, there are some decent people to be found. Anna's next-door-neighbor in the dorm, Meredith, takes Anna under her wing and draws her into a group of friends where Anna tries to find a place despite being the very new addition to a group with some history. One of the members of this group is √Čtienne St. Clair (called St. Clair by his friends), an "American" by birth raised in London (so he has a British accent). Unfortunately, he also has a girlfriend and is therefore off limits. (That *always* stops us from falling for these kinds of boys, right ladies?) Needless to say, Anna's lost from the start and this novel is the story of her senior year where she discovers Paris, herself, and the perils of navigating relationships on two continents.

In a time where every other YA novel seems to feature a vampire or werewolf, Anna and the French Kiss features a refreshingly mortal cast written in to the world as the reader knows it to be. No one's destined to be the Summer Queen and the only thing that seems immortal or endless is French class. The plot is refreshingly real and familiar -- a girl likes a boy but there's an obstacle. Novels about a teen in a new place have defined the YA genre (long before Bella moved to Forks), and yet there's fresh life breathed into this tale by Stephanie Perkins. Paris is practically the main character and the location is essential to the story, as opposed to just being a pretty backdrop. The really remarkable part of the novel rests in reviving this easily identifiable plot and using it to convey a fresh voice. Perkins creates a narrator that's full of charm and deep emotions. Anna is witty and sharp, quick to notice some details and totally blind to others. She's real, her friends are real, and their problems seem even more so. Perhaps the two most shocking things of all in the novel are that (1) Anna has actual interests of her own and (2) there's never a moment where phrases like "we talked all night" are substituted for the dialogue that proves real connection as opposed to just summoning it at whim and expecting this to be enough for the reader. Even if these high school seniors are rather mature (they act more like college study abroad students than seniors in high school), it's easy to accept and move past it. If you weren't already smitten, then the humor would do you in -- seriously, Anna/Perkins is one of the funniest narrators I've encountered in a long time -- and it never lets up, even as we move into the all-too-easy-to-identify-with torment of wondering whether Anna's imagining the details that mean so much when it comes to making a connection with a boy. I'm someone who tires quickly of novels where girls pine after boys ad nauseum, and while the reader may want to shake sense into Anna on occasion, it's in a good way... a "why do we all seem to make this exact same mistake when we know better" way.

It helps, of course, that Anna's love interest is a delight. You had me at British accent, Stephanie. √Čtienne St. Clair's complicated background and family life seethe beneath the surface of a charismatic teenage boy, one who isn't some unreachable ideal (he's short, he's moody, he has realistic relationship issues) and yet he's also adorable in all the right ways (he's short, he's moody, and he wears "The Hat," a visually offensive hat that his mother knit for him but since he loves his mother, he wears the hat... OMGCUTE). The connection between Anna and St. Clair has actual roots (that go beyond proximity and author whim) and St. Clair takes an interest in Anna's love of cinema, helping her explore Paris via movie theaters. When St. Clair's home life takes a dramatic and terrible turn, Anna is there for him -- and like a real boy, he allows himself to lean on the friend he needs and the complications that ensue make sure everything seems tangled and no issues are clear cut. The reader might be screaming for St. Clair to leave his girlfriend and date Anna, but it's impossible to not understand his hesitations in light of his character, which provide a very real problem for him (and, consequently, Anna).

Added to the mix are a supporting cast of friends with their own issues -- who are almost perfectly measured so they can remind us that Anna and St. Clair are not the only people in the world and yet the supporting characters never overpower the main plotline or do anything to draw real focus away and confuse. The end result? You've got a superb group for being young and in Paris... which, let's face it, we all wish we could be, even if it came at the cost of reliving the follies of our late teenage years. Maybe *that's* the true miracle of this book -- Perkins makes the tortured angst of unrequited teenage love seem appealing. Sure, it's awful for Anna as she over-analyzes every single word and gesture, but we readers all remember what it was to be in her shoes and so this is the perfect way to experience those emotions without actually enduring twin extra long beds. (Incidentally, this book also features one of the sweetest and most awkward scenes that defines an unspoken attraction in all of young adult literature. A scene that had me shifting in my seat and making a noise that resembled a smothered squeal.) Stephanie Perkins never hits a wrong note and the ending will have the reader internally wrestling with the best dilemma a book can offer: do you gobble it all down and race to the end or do you try to pace yourself and savor every word? (Solution: gobble, then take your time with a second helping/reading.)

Do yourself a favor and go read this book right now. It will be the best thing you'll do all week, if not all month or even year (unless you're giving birth or getting married or something... then I can kind of understand how that might win out). I specifically bought the hardcover version because even before reading it, I knew this would be one I'd want to pass around. I've been delighted to loan this book to several girlfriends, all of whom now share my giant, goofy grin whenever Anna is mentioned. I keep loaning it out because if I have Anna back in my possession for more than a day, I abandon all other reading selections to re-read it. What more can I say? Hurry up and join the Anna and the French Kiss party -- teenage romance has never been so charming. C'est magnifique to say the very least.

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