Anna and the French Kiss written by Stephanie Perkins, 384 pp, RL: TEEN

First reviewed 3/21/11, Anna and the French Kiss is the perfect YA romance, in my opinion, notable for the fact that the love interests have the opportunity (and gift) to become friends first. Thoughtful, charming and exciting, the fact that this story takes place is Paris is the ganache in the macaron...

Back in December of last year when I reviewed Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Leviathan, it was such a treat because I love the authors but also because my daughter, who also loves the authors, was going to be spending a week in NYC where this book is set. SO, buying and reading the book was a sort of double happiness added value. Knowing that the authors mentioned a few real places in their excellent book, Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, I thought Dash and Lily's Book of Dares book might suggest a few cool places to visit or keep an eye out for during her trip. And it did, The Strand Bookstore being the coolest of the lot. Right around this same time, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins began to get a lot of attention, most notably a mention on NPR in a piece titled, Oh, To Be Young: The Year's Best Teen Reads, presented by YA author Gayle Forman. Knowing that my daughter would be traveling to Paris for her spring break with her Grandmother (I swear, in their short lives my kids have traveled more than I have in four decades), I made a note to grab this book and pack it in her suitcase, thinking it might be like Dash & Lily and provide an extra little travel guide info as well as a sweet romantic story to partake of in the City of Lights. I bought it and made the mistake of reading the first page or two before tucking it away. A mistake because I ended up devoting the next six hours of my life to the book, reading it from cover to cover. And then, three days later, I read it again. Ahhhhhh......

Ahhhhhh......  Étienne St Clair. I'm sorry, I am going to get a bit swoony here. But, I also get way, way ahead of myself. While Perkins has created a complex, dreamy love interest in St Clair, as he is called by all his friends, she has also created a vibrantly real, wonderfully flawed narrator in seventeen-year-old Anna Oliphant. A native of Atlanta, GA, Anna's parents have been divorced for over six years, separating when her beloved little brother Sean was six months old. Since then, Anna's father has changed his last name and begun writing novels that are instant bestsellers and subsequently made into films. As a bookseller, I loved the little details that Perkins threw in about Anna's father - his thick, white cable knit sweaters, orange tan and his one-name book titles brought to mind a cross between Pat Conroy and Nicholas Sparks with a bit of Lurlene McDaniel, a popular teen author who's short books always involve a tragic death, thrown in. As Anna says of him, "My father isn't cultured. But he is rich," and it is this combination that has led him to believe that having his daughter spend her senior year at a boarding school in Paris is just the thing for a man of his stature to do. What makes Anna so immediately winning is that she beings the book by telling us that she knows next to nothing about France ("Madeline, Amélie and Moulin Rouge") and definitely does not want to be spending her senior year at SOAP (School of Americans in Paris. An aspiring film critic with her own website, Anna is not happy about leaving her job at the Royal Midtown 14 multiplex and her long-time crush and co-worker (who kissed her on her last night on the job) Toph. She is even more unhappy about leaving her brother, her best friend Bridgette and the possibility of the stereotypical senior year experiences like the prom, even if she doesn't really want to actually go to the prom. Oh, and there's the fact that she speaks no French, is a bit of a clean freak and is too scared to leave her dorm room to explore the city.

Fortunately for Anna, on her first night in Rèsidence Lambert, the co-ed dorm for juniors and seniors at SOAP, she meets her neighbor. Sensing her homesickness, Meredith Chevalier invites Anna over for chocolat chaud, which Anna at first thinks is a "chocolate show." That same night, Anna bumps into Étienne St Clair in the hallway as he is searching for Mer's new room. After the smash-up, when he asks her, "Are you all right, then?" Anna thinks to herself, "Oh my. He's English." As if a dreamy French love interest wasn't enough, turns out the dreamy love interest is even better - British! And American! How is this possible, you ask? St Claire's French father opened his first gallery in London, where he spend most of his childhood, then a second in  France where he now lives. St Claire's parents are divorced and his American artist mother now lives in San Francisco. So, Étienne St Clair has the charming British accent, the 21st century version of Hugh Grant's incredible floppy hair (like Anna, the first thing I notice about anyone is hair) and the cultured European upbringing to polish it off. And he is polished. St Clair is described as a shiny, attractive object of many girls' desire, including Mer. Sadly for all, or not at all sad as Anna convinces herself, St Clair is involved with Ellie, former SOAP student who is now a freshman studying photography at the prestigious Parsons Paris School of Art + Design. Ellie had been part of the tight knit group made up of St Clair, Mer, Rashmi and Josh. Mer had been hoping to fill in the absence she has left but somehow, it is new girl Anna who fills that spot.

What Perkins does with the rest of Anna and the French Kiss from this point on is equally brilliant and bittersweet. Grateful to Mer for inviting her into her group of friends and aware of the group's continuing fondness for Ellie, despite the fact that they rarely see her anymore, Anna convinces herself that any romantic feelings she might have for St Clair would be best left unattended. And, while St Clair's attentions don't go unnoticed or unappreciated, both he and Anna think that she is still carrying a torch for Toph. This leaves room for a genuine and deep friendship to form between the two as they find themselves able to support each other through difficult times. The two both receive devastating news in varying degrees about loved ones back in the States and have the chance over the long Thanksgiving weekend to spend hours alone together as the rest of the dorm has left for the holiday. The two bond again over winter break when they provide each other what Gayle Forman aptly calls a "telephonic soft shoulder." Perkins does a masterful job of creating and depicting a strong physical attraction between Anna and St Clair that, while very delicious, is not all that exists between the two. The enforced chastity of their friendship, for misunderstood reasons on both sides, makes for some frustrating moments for both as well as some true anger and sadness for Anna when she feels like she has been strung along by St Clair. However, these strong negative feelings and bad behavior towards friends also allows for some wonderful introspection and growth on Anna's part. Perhaps because the story is set in a boarding school in Paris and therefore without the usual trappings of romances set in American high schools, the story itself seems more mature and complex than what I am used to. While the characters are still learning how to navigate friendships and relationships, they are doing it in places like Notre Dame, the Pantheon and Père-Lachaise Cemetery while eating marvelous pastries, champagne grapes and delicious panini sandwiches bought from a street vendor. As Gayle Forman also says in her review:

On the surface, the perfect romantic comedy seems so easy: Take lovers, add drama and serve it hot. Once you deconstruct a book like Stephanie Perkins' delectable debut, you realize what a trick such a concoction actually is: love interests whose chemistry sparks off the page, tantalizing pacing, sparkling repartee, vibrant supporting characters, and a setting like Paris never hurts.

I couldn't agree more - Anna and the French Kiss does seem simple at first, but as you read on (and realize that you cannot put the book down) you definitely come away with an appreciation for all that Perkins has brought to her plot and characters as well as the magical twist she has added by setting the book in Paris. I know that I usually never speak specifically of the kinds of things parents might find objectionable or concerning in the teen books that I review. I think I have said it somewhere here before, but, when I review a teen book you can assume that is has some kind of swearing in it, although not to excess, as well as some kind of romantic bits, but nothing graphic and nothing more than a trip to first or second base. I bring it up now because, as a parent of a teenage girl and a person who enjoys a little romance now and then, I have to say that Stephanie Perkins is pitch perfect in her writing when it comes to leaving a lot to the imagination or leaving it out of the book all together in favor of establishing a genuine friendship between the love interests. I admire Anna for being unafraid to admit that she is a virgin and why she remains so. At the start of the book, Anna has only had one boyfriend (not counting an imaginary boyfriend from camp) and has only kissed by her first boyfriend Matt. She never liked him as much as he liked her and their break-up was uneventful and mutual. Because of the tension between Anna and St Claire throughout the novel, there is only one intense kiss near the end of the book. However, Anna is not shy about appreciating that which makes St Clair so attractive in the first place, from his beautiful hair to the curve of his lips and the size and shape of his hands. There is even one part where, sitting next to him, she notices the "back of his shirt has crawled up, exposing a slice of his back. His skin is smooth and pale. It's the sexiest thing I have ever seen." In a day and age when people are constantly complaining, and with good reason, about the level of exposure and content of television shows, movies and the internet these days it is really refreshing to encounter an author who is able to allow her characters to be relatively inexperienced and appreciate the smaller beauties of the opposite sex without seeming like a prude or feeling the need to rush ahead to the inevitable. As a parent and a bit of a prude myself, I was pleasantly surprised by this book and have to confess that, without reading them, I have let the more tawdry books on the shelves of the teen section influence my perception of all the books. I am happy to admit I am wrong.

Anna and the French Kiss is a wonderful, marvelous book and I would not hesitate to give it to a young woman and let is serve as an example of what the real foundation of a loving relationship is, and that is friendship. And, of course, that little spark, that chemistry that makes it click in the first place. I can't wait to see what Stephanie Perkins does next, and happily for us she has two more books in the works. Lola and the Boy Next Door will hit the shelves on September 29, 2011 and is a companion to Anna and the French Kiss, although I have not figured out the connection.  In the Fall of 2012, Isla and the Happily Ever After will be published and is also a companion to Perkins' first two books. This connection I do get, as Isla is a very minor, but admirable, character in Anna and the French Kiss

The updated covers of the first two books and the third, which does not match...

Just for fun - the French cover!

Below is a video of phenomenal YA author John Green  (Paper Towns) talking about this book as well as some other very, very cool stuff.  Be sure to click through to the video made by "mathemusician" Vi Hart (or just click her name here and watch her math doodling videos. Below the video is some information on the historical sites mentioned in the book, including a bookstore as cool as The Strand, Shakespeare and Company.

So, this is what happens when I sit down to write a review of a book that is chock full of historical, cultural and geographical references. I end up spending hours researching all the little tidbits thrown in here and there and then, at the end of the day when it is time to make dinner and do the laundry and pick the kids up from school, I realize I haven't written a thing about the book itself. Here is a peek into all of the diversions that kept me from the real review today...

I have never been to Paris, but was a huge fan of the American literary expatriates who congregated in Paris after WWI. Besides Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, HD, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. I loved Hemingway, especially his book about that time, A Moveable Feast and I am currently reading The Paris Wife, the new novel by Paula McLain about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife who was with him in Paris during these years and who also left a valise with three years worth of his manuscripts, copies included, on a train while rendezvousing with Hemingway in Switzerland. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the story of Sylvia Beach, the American who opened the bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 1919 to sell English books to the Americans living there as well as provide a hub for this growing community. I had dreams of moving to Paris and doing that myself writing the Great American Novel on the side.

Sylvia Beach

Besides being an amazing bookstore where you could buy or borrow books like DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover when it was banned in the rest of the world, in 1922 Beach published James Joyce's Ulysses after it was banned in the US and the UK. In 1941 the occupation of France caused the bookstore to close, although there is a rumor that it was closed because Beach would not sell a German soldier her last copy of Finnegan's Wake. In 1951 American Geroge Whitman opened a bookstore called Le Mistral that, like Shakepeare and Company served as a focal point for culture in bohemian Left Bank Paris. After encounters with the legendary Sylvia Beach, Whitman changed the name to Shakespeare and Company after Beach's death in 1962. In 1981, Whitman's daughter was born and named in honor of Beach. Sylvia Whitman now runs Shakespeare and Company, which, in the tradition of Beach, includes sleeping facilities with thirteen beds and employs and supports writers to this day, as Beach did herself.

I went to Reed College, the last two years anyway, in Portland, OR and studied the poets of the Left Bank, among other things. While there, I discovered that there was a hotel in Nye Beach called The Sylvia Beach Hotel, which bills itself as being "truly a hotel for book lovers." With no radio, television or wi-fi, the hotel rooms are understandably named after authors and divided into three categories, Classics, Best Sellers and Novels. There is a Dr Seuss Room as well as a JK Rowling room and there are also rooms named after Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Tolkein, Steinbeck and Gertrude Stein, to name a few. And, of course, there is a library.

KILOMETRE ZERO! (Also the stamp inside any book bought at Shakespeare and Company!)

Source: Purchased

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