Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review of Anna and the French Kiss

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In 2010, the YA community was buzzing about Stephanie Perkins’ debut novel Anna and the French Kiss. It was raved about by so many people that I knew I had to read it, but only now have I gotten around to it.

In the book, the title character is sent to spend her senior year of high school at the School of America in Paris. Anna doesn’t speak a word of French and is furious with her Nicolas Sparks- esque author father for being so obsessed with appearances that he would deprive her of spending her final year of high school away from her best friend, Bridgette, and her little brother, Seany. She realizes that she’s being forced to do something most eighteen year-olds would die for, but she’s still pissed.
But things are looking up not long after Anna arrives. Her hallmate Meredith becomes a fast friend, and through her, Anna is introduced to some great people. One of these people is Etienne St. Clair, an American who was born in Paris and raised in London. His English accent only adds to his attractiveness and Anna develops an instant crush. But St. Clair (as everyone calls him) has a girlfriend of a year, and Anna tries to squelch her feelings, especially since Meredith is obviously in love with him, too. But of course, she can’t, and the usual teenage mishaps happen- awkward encounters, drunken confessions, and misunderstandings that threaten to tear the entire friend group apart.

Anna wasn’t my favorite YA book I’ve ever read. Perkins’ style is very enjoyable to read, but the plot of the book is underdeveloped in some places and forced in others. For the most part, Anna is a likeable character, but for some reason, Perkins sometimes downgraded her usually-witty character to an airhead: upon finding out that the motto attached to her family crest is French, she comments, “How was I supposed to know a Scottish motto would be in French? […] I always assumed it was in Latin or some other dead language.” For a girl who is obsessed with all films, including foreign ones, these sorts of moments made no sense.

Anna and St. Clair’s friendship is pretty cute and fun throughout the book, and Perkins does a great job of describing the awkward tension between two people that are attracted to one another but can’t do anything about it. One of my favorite scenes was after St. Clair’s domineering father forces St. Clair to stay in Paris over Thanksgiving instead of spending it with his sick mother in California. He’s so upset that, after venting about it to Anna in her room, he asks if he can stay there overnight. The awkward sexual tension is well-done: they both stay fully dressed, but there’s not enough room in Anna’s bed to avoid their legs or arms touching and they both try their hardest to act like they’re totally fine with the arrangement. But then, several chapters later, when St. Clair hears their friends having sex, Anna freaks out mentally, thinking how humiliating this moment is because the fact that she’s a virgin has always been this “wall” between her and St. Clair… but it hadn’t been before, and after that moment, continued not to be.

Similar incongruities spring up elsewhere in the book. St. Clair mentions how controlling and emotionally abusive his father is several times throughout the book, but when Anna sees St. Clair and his father interacting on the street, she thinks “Whoa, this is why St. Clair never talks about his dad- he’s controlling and emotionally abusive.” If Perkins had meant for the street interaction to be jarring and sad, she failed to create the proper build-up.

There were things I enjoyed about the book, though. Anna’s voice and Perkins’ style in general reminded me of Maureen Johnson’s, whom I love, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that they have the same agent (as it happens, a flaw of the practically-perfect Johnson’s is her knack for creating romantic relationships that fall short in some infinitesimal but important way.) The book is a fun read with good characters, but Anna doesn’t have enough weight for me to return to it anytime soon.

Review of You Should Have Known (spoilers!)

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I bought the audiobook of  Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known on a whim. The last time I did that, the chosen book sucked, but this one sounded promising. From the back:

Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the only life she ever wanted for herself. Devoted to her husband, a pediatric oncologist at a major cancer hospital, their young son Henry, and the patients she sees in her therapy practice, her days are full of familiar things: She lives in the very New York apartment in which she was raised, and sends Henry to the school she herself once attended. Dismayed by the ways in which women delude themselves, Grace is also the author of a book You Should Have Known, in which she cautions women to really hear what men are trying to tell them. But weeks before the book is published a chasm opens in her own life: A violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only an ongoing chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster, and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.

I simply loved this book. It was one of those books that you get addicted to. I can’t remember the last time I just laid in the bed and listened to a book, and I even listened to it while doing a workout video because I couldn’t bear to wait 25 minutes to find out what happened next.

Grace is a wonderful character. She’s caring but straightforward, confident but utterly human in her insecurities, smart and inwardly cutting when she’s stressed. ‘Likeable’ is the wrong word to describe Korelitz’s character, though I did like her. I guess she’s just… perfectly human. The perfect example is her psychology book, which bears the same title as the novel: Grace cares very much for the down-on-their-luck women/patients who prompted her to write the book, but they frustrate her. Why can’t they see that the men in their lives informed them long ago of their own deficiencies? Your husband’s “experimental phase” with men was not experimental; he told you he couldn’t handle money on your first date; you should have realized that when his gaze lingered on other women when you were engaged, that it wasn’t going to be stopped by a ring. You just should have known.

The book, which isn’t even published yet, gets huge attention. She appears in Vogue, the New York Times, and her agent secures her a spot on The View. But the book is just one part of her life. Grace spends considerable time helping out with her son’s school, also her alma mater. It’s at a meeting about the latest fundraiser that she meets the to-be murder victim. Their contact is extremely brief, but it’s enough to get Grace grilled by the police once the woman is killed. 

The thing I loved most about the book is how internal it is. Grace’s mind is so active, and the murder puts her into a complete tailspin, especially when combined with the worry over her husband Jonathan’s whereabouts and handling the way to explain all of this to her adolescent son. Her memories, combined with her knowledge of the human mind, makes her inner journey engaging and exciting. Korelitz’s timing with Grace’s memories are great, with only one exception: for some reason, to explain how Grace came to own a lakeside house in Connecticut, Korelitz takes us all the way back  to the early fifties so we can see her grandparents’ life together. All we really need to know is that Grace’s grandmother is her namesake and that she left Grace the house, but Korelitz regales us with the life of a 1950s housewife, which might be interesting except THERE’S A MURDER BEING SOLVED 50 YEARS AHEAD. 

Speaking of the murder, the solving of it is also perfectly timed. Many readers complain that it’s obvious that Jonathan committed the murder- and it is. That’s because its clarity isn’t the point; it’s the fact that.Jonathan is a psychopath that is also a doctor who is married to a shrink Sure, as soon as I read that Jonathan made sure he couldn’t be contacted, I figured out that he was probably the perpetrator, but the thing that gave me actual chills was learning why and how he could possibly be that kind of person. I cannot get over how interesting and smart it is that a psychologist who wrote a book on pinpointing flaws early on ends up marrying a legitimate psychopath… and not realizing it for 17 years. It’s not because she lacks smarts as a human being or a therapist; it’s because she has exactly the same hang-ups as her target audience. As she figures out the truth about Jonathan and her life with him, she is forced to do some serious, painful soul-searching. 

The novel is possibly a bit too long at the end; I don’t really need a whole chapter on how Henry is convinced by a Connecticut musician, at least for a night, to set aside his classical violin to pick up a fiddle. But I’m willing to forgive Korelitz’s overwriting because the book as a whole is amazing. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. GET THIS BOOK NOW.