Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss

Written by: Stephanie Perkins

Published: 2010

Synopsis: Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris--until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all...including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?


Don't judge a book by it's cover they say. A book's more than it's title and cover art, they say. Did I believe them? Nope. Were they right? Yeah, actually they pretty much were.

Contrary to what that horrible title and cover suggests, this isn't your average YA love story. It almost is, but decent writing, characters and that "it factor" pushes it over the line into something that's fun, a little bit touching and will 100% make you yearn for a trip to Paris.

If I'm being honest (when am I not?) I thought everyone had lost their mind when I finally started this book. I downloaded it as an ebook to avoid that god-damn cover, and I struggled my way through the first chapter. Similar to Hazel in The Fault In Our Stars I wasn't crazy about Anna. She seems like the worst kind of ungrateful teenager, whinging and whining about everything under the sun, just a complete wet blanket. Not that she's upset about nothing, I think I'd have been pretty rank at my parents if they'd decided to send me away for my final year of high school. But it also seemed like too much. Too dramatic for the first chapter, too much hate towards her dad (and not enough towards her mother), too much teenager-y angst. This was partially the construction of Anna's character but also the writing style. I groaned out loud and nearly gave up completely when I got to this line;
"Ever since he sold out and started writing lame books that were turned into lamer movies, he's been trying to impress his big-shot New York friends with how cultured and rich he is. 
All I could see was her stamping her foot on the ground and making the "myeh" tantrum face. Ugh, teenage angst, how I loathe you. But I persevered and Anna mellowed out a little. She remained my least favourite character throughout the book but she was a great vehicle for exploring the story. She's the new girl in a school of people who have been closer than close for the last four years, she's homesick and she is terrified of going out and exploring the foreign world at her new doorstep. It was fun to watch her struggle ordering off a menu, or to see her trip around the classmates she considers far more glamorous than herself. It's through her terrified eyes that we see the sporty Mer, the exotic Rashmi, the arty burn-out Josh and the oh so handsome Étienne. They're built up almost like celebrities when she first gets to know them. They're all so intelligent  and witty and good looking, but of course as the book continues we learn that they're just normal teenagers struggling with normal teenage angst...they're just doing it against the background of Notre Dame and the Pantheon.

Much of the book follows the standard YA formula. Girl likes boy, boy has girlfriend, girl realises other girl in group also likes boy, girl looks for other boy, girl actually gets close to first boy, tangled messy mess ensues. It's a better love story than Twilight, but it's also far from the best. It's a little predicable, but it still warmed my heart in all the right places and made me go "awwww" several hundred times.

What I actually really liked, and I'm probably in the minority here, is the exploration of family in the book. Anna has a very turbulent relationship with her father, turbulent in that she blames him for everything and considers him the worst person alive. It usually comes out as vitriol directed at his writing career, in which he decided to forgo the search for the Great American Novel and instead settled for a Nicholas Sparks level of quality and success. As the book continues you realise the reason she hates her dad is not because he's a "sell-out"* but because she feels left behind. I don't think Anna ever actually makes this connection in the book (her lack of self-reflection and growth is ridiculous) but in every interaction with her father, he's trying to make a connection, to make a joke, to check she's OK  or to offer some advice. Meanwhile the one time we meet her sainted mother she's an absolute bitch who chides Anna for trivial matters and never lives up to the close relationship that Anna suggests they share. But she's the one who stayed. She didn't run off and find a better career, or a better life. Therefore she's immune to the wrath that Anna has saved for the person who did run, who did leave and who only shows up at special occasions.

Along with the relationship with her parents, Anna's distrust of men and inability to accept that they'd keep their word of not running off is a constant theme in this book. Every time Étienne or someone else "runs off" Anna see's her dad leaving 7+ years ago and relives the heartbreak, and the cycle of mistrust continues. It bleeds into her female relationships too, ultimately resulting in Anna being way too harsh on people for simple mistakes or small betrayals because of the weighty betrayal that began it all. And to throw some context on Anna's "problems," real parental grievances are cast next to hers, such as Étienne s father's refusal to let him visit his mum when she's diagnosed with cancer. This isn't to suggest that Anna doesn't have any real problems, and she's well within her right to hate a man who left her family 6 months after her brother was born, but she fails to acknowledge the true source of her hate, and instead comes across as petty and a little ridiculous. "Oh your dad writes crappy books? Yeah that must be really hard, mine won't let me visit my sick mother or leave the country".

Every book we read we come at from our own perspective, and considering I spent a great deal of time between the ages of 15-17 dealing with my own father issues, I'm not surprised that I seem to be the only person who seemed to have taken this view on the family relations in the book. I think it adds a lot of weight to what is otherwise a fairly traditional YA story, but there's plenty of other things to love if the idea of a family drama bums you out. Anna's discovery of Paris, Étienne and his pretty hair, the RA Nate who seemed like a bit of a babe to me, the roller-coaster that is teenage love and friendship, girl scout cookies and films in French cinemas. Plus you get lines that are equal part daggy and adorable like this one;
"I love that the accent over his first name is called an acute accent and that he has a cute accent"
Anna and the French Kiss isn't likely to be in the collection of classic texts blasted into space when the Earth finally explodes or melts down but if you're looking for a fun and enjoyable YA with witty dialogue, cute accents and (mostly) likeable characters then you can't go wrong with Anna and the French Kiss. Just look for a different edition because UGHHHH, that cover is the worst.

*Anna condemns her dad for writing books with sad endings when she prefers to read happy endings which I think is weak sauce. Who wants a happy ending that isn't earned? Although if they're only sad for sad's sake, i.e. emotional manipulation, then I stand by her in her condemnation.


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