“That’s what I thought,” St. Clair says when I don’t respond. He shakes his head. His dark messy hair has a few curls in it today. It’s quite breathtaking, really. If there were an Olympics competition in hair, St. Clair would totally win, hands down. Ten-point-oh. Gold medal.
I shrug. “It’s only been a week. It’s not a big deal.”
“Let’s go over the facts one more time,” Josh says. “This is your first weekend away from home?”
“Your first weekend without parental supervision?”
“Your first weekend without parental supervision in Paris? And you want to spend it in your bedroom? Alone?” He and Rashmi exchange pitying glances. I look at St. Clair for help, but find him staring at me with his head tilted to the side.
“What?” I ask, irritated. “Soup on my chin? Green bean between my teeth?”
St. Clair smiles to himself. “I like your stripe,” he finally says. He reaches out and touches it lightly. “You have perfect hair.”
Author: Stephanie Perkins
From Goodreads: 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?
Notes: As mentioned when I originally made plans to read this book, I tend to have ‘meh’ experiences with ‘cute, light romances’. As far as cheerful readability goes, however, Perkins bested the average by a couple of standard deviations. The narrative, while not literary, contains a lot of detail and is both visually and emotionally interesting. The setting—Paris—is irresistible, naturally, and the primary characters are all nuanced, so there’s quite a lot to like about Anna's tale.
The protagonist herself is a believable teenager. She’s also the kind of person who makes us shy, nervous types afraid to go out in public; she's got a sharp eye for detail, especially where quirks are involved, and her judgment is immediate and ruthless. Like most of us girls, she finds it easy to overlook the awkward side of a cute boy; she does not, however, grant passes to anyone else. That didn't kill her likability factor, but experiencing her thoughts frequently made me uncomfortable.
The latter was true not only because of her judgmentalism, but because her response to handsome boys went straight to lust. When she thought Étienne’s (clothed) backside was “better than Notre-Dame”, I nearly put the book down (where. does. one. even. start?! Get some artistry in your soul, child!) Much of her admiration of his body was relatively mild, but it fixated on heading to bed, and the book all but states that teenage sex—given a few standards and precautions—is normal and healthy and good.
That message is exceptionally common in young adult fiction. It is preached and defended with a passion that tends to inspire internet witch hunts against anyone who disagrees loudly enough. Granted, the preachers have some valid points. There is sex in a lot of teen books because there is sex in a lot of teen lives, and as is fairly noted whenever the topic comes up, it is naive to presume otherwise.
It is also naive—and irresponsible—to presume that teens are emotionally and physically prepared to handle the consequences of sexual activity. That any reasoning in favor of abstinence is necessarily prudish. That pregnancy is the worst that can happen. That because tolerably wealthy kids with tolerably supportive parents can often get away with sexual license, the same is true down the social scale. That the prevalence and nature of sexual discussion and sexual content in entertainment has no harmful effect on amount and type of sexual experimentation.
Excursus ended. But here's an addendum: making out in public, while it may be pleasurable for the couple, is distracting and awkward for everyone else in the vicinity, no matter how well disposed toward young lovers. Parents, for the love of human decency if not of God, please endow your offspring with some respect for the word inappropriate.
It more or less goes without saying that those of us with a religious basis for morality cannot help but disapprove some of Anna’s thoughts and actions. Anna is an interesting read for someone brewed and steeped in traditional monotheistic religion, however: she's completely disconnected, so far post-Christian that she's simply pagan. She interacts with Catholic art with no religious feeling whatsoever, wrestles with the need for forgiveness without conscious conviction of its being objectively right, and devotes herself to her bronze gods—lust, friendship, cinema—with nothing to direct or temper the mood of the moment.
I found it disorienting to be in her head. And yet, I liked her; she loved her young brother, offered real compassion to Étienne when he needed it, and showed concern for Meredith’s feelings. I loved that she would paint a chocolate mustache on herself to make a friend smile, that she had sensitivity enough to eventually want to forgive and be forgiven. I couldn't help taking some satisfaction in her punching Amanda for calling Meredith names. And I would have enjoyed more in-text development of her interest in cinema, which was fascinating.
Étienne, the hero, is adorable in his own way: short and appealing and charismatic. The constant references to his hotness didn't do much for me, but the hurt in him did; I wound up wanting to mother him. Like most charismatic boys, he wasn't great at treating female emotions respectfully, though he wanted to be. His waffling was unkind to both Anna and Ellie. To be fair, of course, he did have other serious concerns on his mind at the time.
Anna’s father merits mention as an obvious satire on author Nicholas Sparks, at least regarding his writing career. The (very) little I know of Sparks personally is all to the good; I have no reason to believe he’s anything like the lame jerk Anna considers her father to be. Regarding the James Ashley novels, however, I was amused and sometimes a little miffed by the disdain. While I’ve avoided Sparks’ oeuvre aside from A Walk to Remember for reasons not unlike Anna's (love stories that end tragically in cancer, really? sigh...), I’m forever grateful to the man for humanizing a backward church girl for the reading public. I will always love Jamie Sullivan.
Even James Ashley was allowed some humanity, though, and Perkins' ultimate success is in the depth and detail of her characters. She also made me want to go to Paris, if only to see Notre Dame.