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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
Kiersten White

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss - Stephanie Perkins, Kim Mai Guest
***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Privileged whiner wins over diminutive hunk after too many pages of no character growth.
Hmm, I'm not sure I understand the devoted online affection for this book. There is nothing profound in the story, the characters are not memorable, and it doesn't break an eentsy bit of new or even interesting ground. It doesn't make use of the Paris setting in a rich or believable way. It's purportedly light and breezy--a "feel-good" book. But for me personally to feel good after slogging through 372 pages, I want the main character to deserve her reward in the end. And for it to be truly "breezy," it needs to be a hundred pages shorter. Yes, I am a literary ogre.
The good. I don't read much "fun" or "light" contemporary, but my impression is that Perkins took more care with the actual writing (the language, the prose) than many authors in that genre. It also might be a good antidote to a very heavy or depressing book, if you need to cleanse your palate before getting back to something that will enrich you. 
But does anything interesting happen? In the beginning I was sort of hooked, but then it just dragged on and on (for comparison, Sara Zarr's The Lucy Variations is 11,000 words shorter)...which ultimately did the book a disservice, because I had a good long time to analyze what it was about Anna that was bothering me. I began wondering to myself "Exactly what is the plot here, and what is the character learning?" and I had too much time to realize that Perkins was coming up short in both categories. 
Anna's growth. Anna doesn't seem to learn much (other than how to travel Paris on her own, I guess). The whole book seemed to be a study in not saying what you feel to the people who matter. (Oh, lordy, how many times does Anna have to think the correct answer in her head and then tell us, "but I couldn't say it out loud.") I was irritated the entire time that she didn't talk to Meredith about the fact that she was crushing on St. Clair--an irritation that would be fine, even welcome, if the point of the whole book was her learning how to express her feelings openly. In the end, very briefly, Anna gives lip service to the notion "I should have talked to Meredith, I should have talked to Bridge," but we don't get the satisfaction of seeing her grow slowly and practice those skills (she reaches out to Bridge and there's the promise of the friendship regrowing, but the novel ends). Instead, the whole point of the novel seems to be geared toward rewarding the audience with romance: the misunderstanding is cleared up between friends and Anna lands her man, but it's not clear that Anna has fundamentally changed from this experience. This is Bridget Jones's Diary fluff. And speaking of Meredith: if you look closely, she's barely in the book at all, but she's the crux of Anna's supposed learning experience at the end. She's often explained away as being at soccer and such. 
Etienne. St. Clair won't leave his girlfriend because he's risk-averse. It's the only flaw he has, other than being short (really, the fact that this is mentioned at all sort of pisses me off), and I thought Perkins tossed both of these "flaws" in there to make a desperate stab at not having him be a typical idealized hot-YA-guy. I joked with my son that making him too loyal to Ellie was like the student who is asked to name a flaw of hers and chooses, "I work too hard in my classes; I'm Type-A!" I mean, it's supposed to be a flaw, but instead it gives an undercurrent to St. Clair of being the devoted type whom we know will never leave Anna once they're finally together. We're told again and again that Ellie is not likable (we don't see it much, unless it's bitchy not to want to hang out with high school friends after you've left school), which makes her seem like a plot device rather than a real person. Having the author diminish Ellie also reduces Ellie's literary threat to Anna...the reader knows Ellie will lose her man pretty much from the get-go.
Rich-kid problems. I got fed up with the general whininess of it all. Wealthy kids at a fancy boarding school who have no responsibilities other than their schoolwork? Boo hoo. Anna's irritation at her mother for letting her car, Sophia, "die" while she was gone? Boo hoo. Grow up. Am I supposed to empathize with her...while St. Clair's mother has cancer? And then Anna's superficial, tacked-on, "Let's give this character depth" interest in movies, which only seems to include contemporary movies that perhaps the author herself likes. We never see Anna studying film (she mentions an Ebert book, I suppose); and how many film buffs in the world haven't seen It Happened One Night? Zero, that's how many.
Niggling points. And then there are the little things that bothered me: the two-dimensional Amanda, who is dropped by the end, and only serves to be there to bully our precious Anna; Sean's red-food-dye allergy, which doesn't play an important part in the plot except to make us think Anna worries about him. Every single plot point should be important to telling the story, should move the story forward, and never be a quick device to "signal" something to the reader.
In sum: the whole thing was way too long with too little point. I didn't see enough growth in Anna to make her reward (Etienne) seem deserved, the way any great Austen-ian love story should work. I might have felt more satisfied if this book had been about something--say, about learning to navigate friendships and romance with honesty and candor.
A note on the narrator: I listened to this as an audiboook because I'd heard that Kim Mai Guest handled the accents well. I speak French, and darn, no, she didn't. Also, there was occasionally a breathiness (sudden audible intakes of air) to her reading that was distracting.