This is another romance, kind of, but also another young-adult novel. Emma read this one earlier this year and really loved it, but I only got around to picking it up now. It’s a well-written and enjoyable romance about two high-school seniors who meet at a boarding school for American kids in Paris. Anna is a film buff, a little bit shy and not really excited about being in Paris (it was her dad’s decision to send her — and by the way the descriptions of her bestselling-author dad who got rich by writing novels about people who fall in love and then get deadly illnesses are hilarious for any reader who recognizes the target of the parody). Etienne St. Clair has a French father, an American mother and has grown up in London, and of course Anna falls for him just as almost every girl does. The story unfolds along with the school year as Anna’s friendship with Etienne develops … and almost blossoms into romance. Romance is stalled by the fact that Etienne still has a girlfriend. But the really interesting thing here is not the fairly predictable storyline but the character development and great use of young-American-in-Paris as a setting for a sweet tale of young love.
Again a caution to parents of younger teens reading this novel: the boarding school Anna and her friends attend is co-ed, extremely poorly supervised, and in a city where high school seniors are legally able to drink, so there are some “mature” hijinks, although Etienne and Anna’s relationship is pretty much PG-rated, and Anna’s one attempt at a drunken party ends badly and leaves her a little wiser. So it’s not exactly that the novel promotes teenage sex and drinking, but certainly acknowledges they exist (the characters are, after all, all 17 or 18 years old, but the writing is likely to appeal to kids more the age of my daughter, 13). I’m a big fan of reading what your kids are reading and discussing it with them, and if you do that in this case, you’ll get to enjoy a fun, sweet romance with Paris as a backdrop (Emma wishes she’d read the novel before we went to Paris as there are many landmarks she’d like to have visited because of their use in the book. Oh dear, guess we’ll just have to go back to Paris sometime …)
Having read both of Susan Rebecca White’s earlier novels (Bound South and A Soft Place to Land) and enjoyed them, I really feel she’s written her best work so far with A Place at the Table. It tells the stories of Bobby, a preacher’s kid from the South who is rejected by his family when they discover he’s gay, and Amelia, a suburban housewife whose husband leaves her when their daughters leave home. Bobby and Amelia come from very different lives, but their paths cross in New York City, and both their lives intersect with the life of Alice, an African-American chef who’s made Southern cooking trendy in New York.
The different paths the characters travel to get to the point where they intersect are vividly described — I found Bobby’s the most compelling story, perhaps because we follow him from childhood through to adulthood and see his struggles all along the way. As you probably know if you read a lot of my reviews, I’m particularly drawn to books that do a good job of integrating characters’ religious faith into believable contemporary stories, and A Place at the Table does a superb job of this. While I don’t know much about Southern culture (except through novels) I know a lot about evangelical culture, and the scenes of Bobby growing up in that world are so entirely believable and real, it’s easy to see both why he has to leave home when his parents catch him making out with another boy, and why he always feels disconnected and misses the world he grew up in. A later scene where the adult Bobby, longing for the sense of God’s presence he knew as a child, goes into a Catholic church and is refused communion, is one of the most heart-rending things I’ve ever read.
Bobby finds a different kind of communion, as do Amelia and Alice, in sharing meals around a common table. Bobby becomes a chef at the restaurant where Alice used to work and explores love, loss, friendship and spirituality through cooking, which not only makes for a good story but made me pretty hungry while reading it (I’m happy to report that the recipe for Bobby’s Meemaw’s pound cake is included at the back of the book).
It takes awhile for the story to work back around to the prologue, which tells the story of Alice and her brother growing up in the racially divided 1920s South, but that story lurks in the background of the other stories, and the alert reader will notice where it begins to move to the forefront again. In one sense this novel reminded me of Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed which I enjoyed so much recently — it tells about two very close siblings separated under tragic circumstances, but then goes on to tell the stories of several other loosely connected people before returning us to the two siblings. White, like Hosseini, avoids the sentimental happy ending while still offering hope — not just for the original divided family but for the larger families that people have forged for themselves through love and connection. By the end of this novel communion truly has been held, in many different forms, and the novel is a testament to the ways we create community even in the midst of tragedy.
This was the last John Green novel I hadn’t yet read, and although both my kids would rate it fourth out of his four books (they love all four, but love this one least, apparently, though still better than most other books), I found it kind of haunting and lovely. The narrator, Quentin, is awestruck by the beautiful, exciting Margo. When she finally notices him, it’s for one night of madcap hijinks before she suddenly disappears just a few months before high-school graduation. Quentin believes Margo has left a trail of clues that will enable him to find her, and enlists the help of his best friends to track her down. Along the way, he learns that the Margo he’s pursuing — the one in his head — doesn’t match the Margo that other people remember — that, in fact, everybody has their own imaginary version of Margo. All this helps Quentin realize that the Margo he’s been admiring from afar is mostly a projection of his own imagination and desires; the real Margo was a real person with her own needs and problems. Through a mystery that ends in a zany, race-against-the-clock road trip, the novel punctures the tendency of lonely teenaged boys to idealize unattainable girls — which is really just a version of the problem we all have of idealizing or demonizing others, turning them into characters in our own stories rather than getting to know them as real, flawed people. For Quentin, finding out that Margo is nothing more than a human being might even be more important than finding Margo herself — if he ever does. You’ll have to read the book to find out if he does.
From a “mom reading young-adult novels” perspective, I’ll point out that this novel, like most of John Green’s books, contains enough references to drinking and sexual activity to make it believable as a novel about older teenagers, but as is often the case in Green’s books, the characters through whose eyes we see the story tend to be the ones least likely to overindulge and to recognize the stupidity of others’ behavior when they’re doing so. Still, parents of younger teens like mine should be aware that these kids don’t live in an artificially sanitized world, and there will be teenage parties where everyone gets drunk — just like in real life.
I’ve been mired in one long, thick, heavy book for much of the summer (you’ll hear more about that later) so at the times when I’ve needed a break (which is often) I’ve been catching up on some of the young adult novels my kids have been reading over the last year or so. As you know, I loved John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (and love almost everything the man says and does generally) but there were still two of his books that I hadn’t read. I picked one up off the coffee table a couple of weeks ago — it turned out to be An Abundance of Katherines — and was immediately absorbed into its world.
An Abundance of Katherines is really a novel, I think, about the stories we tell ourselves and how we let them define it. Colin has just been dumped — for the nineteenth time, according to his reckoning — by a girl named Katherine. Not that the same Katherine has dumped him 19 times — all his girlfriends have been named Katherine, and they always break up with him. That’s how he defines himself: as the guy who gets dumped by Katherine. Also as a former child prodigy who’s not living up to his early promise. Colin’s best friend Hassan defines himself as the funny fat guy, as a Muslim, as a slacker who doesn’t want to go to college — and, of course, as Colin’s best friend and sidekick. An impulsive decision to take a road trip — combined with an even more impulsive decision to turn off and visit a spot that purports to be the gravesite of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand — causes both Colin and Hassan to question the stories they tell themselves — and others — about who they are. In other words they get a chance to redefine themselves — which is one of the things you should get to do on the ideal road trip. I liked this novel a lot and I’m glad my kids liked it too.
Property is an interesting novel about slavery in the American South — a novel that, for me, ended too soon. The main character, a young white woman named Manon, is married off to a somewhat older man who keeps one of his slaves, Sarah, as a mistress and has a child with her. It’s by no means a typical “love triangle” — it’s clear that Sarah hates and resents her master just as much as his wife does. When a slave uprising leads to the master’s death, the expectation might be that both women are set free — but in a way they are more enslaved than ever. This is an extremely well-written short novel that is ruthless and incisive in exploring the evils of slavery and of the subjugation of woman. It also brilliantly avoids the pitfall of making the main character a modern woman in period dress — Manon is caught in a terrible situation and it’s easy to empathize with her, but she is entirely a woman of her times in terms of her view of slavery and her determination to get revenge on Sarah. As a result, she’s not really a likable main character; rather, she’s a character who forces us to recognize how one can be both oppressed and an oppressor.
When the novel ended, I was surprised (I was reading it as an ebook so hadn’t noticed how close to the end I was). It felt abrupt and shocking to have it end when it did, and I felt that I was left hanging with respect to what happened to the characters. I wanted to know more, which speaks to how thoroughly the story drew me in.