A lot of people have raved about this book and finally it piques my curiosity despite its bland synopsis. The story is about an American girl named Anna, whose father made her spend her senior year in School of America in Paris. Yes, Paris, the city of light. She falls in love with a boy who becomes her best friend, but he's taken and so is she (kind of). The book follows her adventures with Paris, theaters and movies, the boy, her friends, and her life in both Atlanta and Paris.
When I say the synopsis is boring, it is because it describes the whole book perfectly but does not properly sum up the complication of the relationships in the book. In fact, I feel that personally, the book is full of contradictions - both good and bad, and is what makes it so endearing.
I'm torn between giving it 3 or 4 stars and end up with 3.5 out of 5. Why?
The characters are what makes this book alive. Anna and Etienne are so real they leap off the pages and carry the story forward. Both of them are flawed, and sometimes not in a good way. Their flaws and mistakes make me grit my teeth and wish they can be honest with each other. Minor spoilers ahead!
Etienne refuses to break up with Ellie for what I know to be perfectly valid and reasonable reasons, but also stupid. Their relationship is not one can brag about, but the comfort and familiar that he emphasizes are not shown enough in the book for readers to believe it. It makes me wish the character Ellie is developed more. I wish we can see snippets of Ellie instead of what is filtered through Rashmi/Etienne/Mer/Anna's eyes and see her for who she is. I wish I know the motivations behind Ellie's decision to drop her friends at SOAP. I wish I can see how Etienne is when he's with Ellie. I wish we can experience those scenes and decide for ourselves whether Etienne belongs with Anna or if Ellie is really such a bitchy character we are made to believe.
That being said, I feel that the minor characters are not developed enough. Not enough Mer, not enough Josh, not enough Ellie. It's just Etienne and Anna in almost every page (and a bit of Rashmi in a very nice proportion, I think, and also Matt, Cherie, Bridge and Toph).
Then the parents. I know Mr. Olliphant (aka James Asher) is not a sympathetic character. I know he's annoying and he makes Anna go to Paris without a choice, and that he doesn't give her enough pocket money and sends threatening emails that only sound mildly so. But what makes Anna categorize him as a bad parent in comparison to Etienne's? If only the scene at Shakespeare & Co shows that the books her father is writing is based on her own family conditions (for example, a sickly mother and a broken home), that makes it a stronger foundation for her to hate him. That would've explained her tears and make more sense that if she's hurting for Etienne's mother, in my opinion. Anna hating on her father for such childish reasons makes her character just a bit whinier.
Personally, I feel the subplot of Etienne's sick mother is redundant. OK, it creates a reason for both leads to get closer (alas, the bed scene, the puke scene, the confession scene, the day trip scene, and so on).
But the first few chapters of Anna interacting with Etienne make such good scenes and their chemistry crackles enough. Their conversations are filled with warmth and good-natured humor and I think it is enough. I understand that so far Etienne has given so much to Anna and the writer might need to create scenes in which Anna gives back to him, but it just makes the story longer and take turns through the merry go round.
There are so many plots inserted in one book that we can't help but feel that time flies - one whole year is happening in the book. From bullying to school fights to exams to Thanksgiving to Christmas... A sick mother, a Christmas morning gone bad...
That being said, it still makes me turn the pages, hungry for more. That's why I said it's contradictive. I am both happy and frustrated with the extra pages.
I love the setting. It makes the book seem touristy (with Anna's firsthand experience in Paris as someone who's not familiar with the city) but not overly so (we have Etienne the tour guide to balance it off, and some of Anna's personal trips alone in the city are my favorite).
I also feel it'll make for one great movie. I miss American-British movies. I keep imagining Oliver James as Etienne St. Clair (although James is tall and St. Clair is short).
Overall, a fun read. Brace for a rollercoaster ride - this book has that and a lot more.