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Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, 183 pp, RL TEEN

nick & norah's infinite playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan is a perfect storm of perfectness - for a certain kind of person who likes this kind of thing, which I really, really do. The story, narrated in alternating chapters by the titular characters, takes place over the course of one very long night and begins when Nick says to Norah, a stranger standing next to him at the bar in the club where his band has just played a gig, "I know this is going to sound strange, but would you mind being my girlfriend for the next five minutes?" Nick and Norah's story is probably, ultimately, as improbable as the more fantastical, meet-cute romances on the shelves these days, in the teen or adult sections. But, the accelerated relationship of nick & norah's infinite playlist is gritty and funny and emotionally honest (sometimes embarrassingly so) and feels a lot more real than any other romance you might read.
I'll be honest - I saw the 2008 movie before I read the book. And I loved it. Kat Dennings, Norah in the moive, is THE epitome of the smart, world weary, verbally adroit but secretly deeply insecure teenage girl I always wished I had been. Except she is beautiful and elegant and ultimately, no matter how they dressed her down in the movie, just too good looking to be the,

Plain Jane, comfy-flannel-shirt-wearing, tousled-bowl-head-haircut-courtesy-of-a-$300-salon-visit-with-Mom-(Bergdorf's)-and-a-$5-can-of-blue-spray-paint (Ricky's), straight-edge-responsible valedictorian

as she describes herself in the novel. Seemingly perfect for each other, Nick and Norah are the only thing standing in the way of their being together. Both are coming off long, tortured relationships with people who treated them pretty badly. In a nice little twist, Norah just happens to be frenemies with Tris, Nick's ex. They have gone to school together for ages and are seniors at the same Catholic girl's school in New Jersey. Norah knows all the details of Tris's relationship with the bass player from Hoboken who is in a queercore band. Norah has even heard the mix-tapes he made for Tris and read the song lyrics he wrote for her that she "passed around in Latin class because she thought it was so lame." Of these lyrics, Norah says, 

I would give body parts to have a guy write something like that for me. My kidney? Oh, both of them? Here, Nick - they're yours - just write more for me. I'll give you a start: boy in a punk club asks strange girl to be his girlfriend for five minutes, girl kisses boy, boy kisses back, boy then meets girl-what did you notice about this girl? Nick, let's hear some lyris. Please? Ready. Set. Go.

Norah wants to be noticed, to be known, to be adored. Who doesn't? So she might be a little prickly - her best friend Caroline calls her Sub Z; her ex calls her the Tin Woman, saying she is intimidating, judgmental and frigid. From the time she was fifteen up until the moment she kissed Nick, she didn't think she could ever do any better than Tal, the Evil Ex she was never good enough for but willing to change for. Even willing to turn down an offer from Brown to join Tal on a kibbutz in South Africa where he's been since he dropped out of Columbia. Until she sees him in the same club where Nick just played. Tal didn't tell Norah he was back. I ended up marking more passages of Norah's narrative than I did Nick's and I'm not entirely sure why - except for the fact that I related to her character more, probably because I share her gender. The odds were definitely stacked against her - Nick only had to get over Tris before he could be open to the possibilities Norah presents, but Norah has to get over Tal and the fact that she knows just how taken with Tris Nick is. And I guess she has a bit of a self-esteem problem, too...

But I think that's one of the reasons that nick & norah's infinite playlist is so amazing. Over the course of one night, in a mere 182 pages with alternating narrators, which really means that Nick's story and Norah's story are actually told in less than 100 pages each (!), Levithan and Cohn create two complex, genuine, flawed, passionate characters with individual, distinctive voices. And they are ardent in the way they speak and act. They talk like teens and swear like teens and, after their first staged kiss, they have a couple of passionate encounters. These are not graphically detailed and they do not have sex, but the two other kissing scenes (three, if you count an instructive session from Tris) are described in a way that captures the awe and nervousness and emotion of the moments in a lovely way.

YA book are are a favorite of mine, and I have read far more YA books than I have had the time to review here. Working in a bookstore for so long and being able take my pick of books, I became weary of adult fiction. While I (mostly) wanted to read books with literary value, I grew tired of reading about ruined lives, sad circumstances and people being awful to each other when they should really know better. And, I got tired of the sex in adult books. I guess YA books that feature romantic relationships are a sweet spot for me because everything is still on the new and hopeful side for the characters. They are working things out and making mistakes, but usually not the crushing mistakes that adults in works of fiction seem to make. And, when they do have romantic encounters they are also new and hopeful and often off the page. Cohn and Levithan also wrote Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List (review to come) and Dash & Lily's Book of Dares, which is as sweetly romantic as nick & norah's infinite playlist is gritty and passionate. What I love about all of these books are the characters and watching their friendships and romances unfold over the course of a night, a year in Paris or a cross-country road trip. They think about how they feel, what they want and why they wants it and, best of all, they get to know each other as friends and build that foundation before they take things any farther. Other favorite YA romances of mine that embody these qualities are Anna and the French Kiss (a year in Paris) by Stephanie Perkins and Don't Stop Now (a road trip) by Julie Halpern.

Source: PaperbackSwap


Jeremy said…
What a beautifully written review -- this obviously resonated for you in an authentic way. I'm not sure that I'll have the same role in helping and picking books for my kids when they're this age, but I suppose there's always room for a good recommendation. I imagine that there are probably some YA-classified books that might still work for our precocious 11-year-old who is just now experiencing some (very mild) boy trouble.
Tanya said…
Thank you so much! I always write better when a book resonates with and/or moves me, which, being an adult, I think YA books have a little bit more power in that area. That said, my knee-jerk response is, "Keep her away from the YA as long as you can! Especially when it comes to romance!" Actually, YA fantasy (NOT supernatural, Twilight-type stuff, more like GRACELING, the Nicholas Flamel series, the Last Dragonslayer series) often have low-key romances amidst adventure. Now I am on a mission! I see a new label - something along the lines of LOW KEY ROMANCE appropriate for tweens...

Check out my review of THE APOTEHCARY by Maile Meloy. The kids are 14 and there are glimmers of romance. But they really do behave like young teens, not sassy tweens.

Check back later for that new label!

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