Pub. Date: August 2011
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Format: Paperback, 372 pp
Age Range: Young Adult
Anna can't wait for her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a good job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. So she's not too thrilled when her father unexpectedly ships her off to boarding school in Paris - until she meets Etienne St. Clair, the perfect boy. The only problem? He's taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her crush back home. Will a year of romantic near-misses end in the French kiss Anna awaits?
This summer, everywhere I turned, people were raving about Anna and the French Kiss. Publishers had begun to make reference to the novel to sell other books. So when the paperback printing appeared in stores this month, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Having finally experienced the novel myself, I'm not sure I found a satisfying answer to the question. I didn't hate the book -- the reading was okay. I just never seemed to connect to the characters. The book never took flight.
From the start, Anna and I had a rocky relationship. She seemed a little whiny and occasionally flighty, but I was willing to cut her a break. She was dealing with a major change, after all. Eventually, though, I couldn't ignore the fact that Anna just has too many moments where she acts really stupidly. Also, I found it hard to accept that she's a movie buff, an aspiring critic, and has her own movie review website, yet doesn't know that Paris is "the film appreciation capital of the world." Finally, I was skeptical that she wouldn't have known her family motto was in French. How can this fact never have been mentioned during her lifetime, considering that she has an embroidered pillow with the Oliphant clan crest and motto? But I tried to ignore these annoyances and read on with optimism.
*** Warning: Spoilers ahead, proceed with caution ***
(I don't like spoilers, but I can't explain why I didn't love the book without mentioning specifics.)
Despite my continued attempts to give her the benefit of the doubt, Anna's behavior and decisions made it difficult for me to fully embrace her. I thought her reaction to the Bridgette/Toph situation was a little over the top. First, I thought her feelings for St. Clair should have overshadowed her crush on Toph. Second, I thought the manner in which she found out about Toph and Bridgette would make her realize that Toph isn't exactly a prize catch. He seems like a real slimeball. And he wasn't even a very talented musician according to Anna. So, seeing him in a different light, I felt she should react differently. Not only is Anna's reaction a touch overdramatic, it is hypocritical. It takes her nearly six months to see the parallel between Bridgette and herself -- each pursues and dates a guy knowing that a friend has feelings for him, and each hides the relationship from said friend. Once again, Anna doesn't seem very bright: she doesn't see signs that seem obvious to the reader, constantly makes incorrect assumptions, and her insecurities are bothersome. For instance, because she assumes everyone hates her, she stops talking to her friends. Seemingly motivated by spite and the desire to make St. Clair jealous, Anna starts dating Dave, a total jerk. And when Dave comes to her room drunk and invites her upstairs to his room, she agrees to go? I think this moment was the beginning of the end for Anna and me. I could never care enough about her to have any emotional investment in the outcome of her relationship with Etienne St. Clair.
Just as I struggled to relate to Anna, I had a tumultuous relationship with the narrative. There were simply not enough compelling story elements outside of the romantic plot line to sustain my interest. Unlike Twilight, for example, here there is no overprotective father, no Volturi, no convincing love triangle (the Toph thing never felt genuine). Anna and St. Clair's only real obstacle to romantic happiness is themselves. They sabotage their relationship with their hesitancy, insecurity, dishonesty, and most of all, with their inability to communicate. And this is where another of my gripes with the novel lies: The author's hands are visibly pulling the strings. Both Anna and St. Clair have a drunken revelation. Stephanie Perkins gets each of her protagonists drunk so they can say the difficult words or ask the hard questions. I don't know if this is the author's attempt to add narrative tension, but I don't like it. I thought there was too much drinking in the novel. You would think that after the first drunken episode with St. Clair, Anna would have been wise enough to refuse to go out drinking when her friends suggested it. Too often, though, Anna is unable to stand up for herself. Frequently, against her own better judgment, she goes along with the wishes and whims of others -- especially when a boy is involved. Furthermore, if the double-drunken episode wasn't enough, the author has both Anna and St. Clair throw punches and land in detention one after the other. This is just another contrived way to get the two characters alone together so that they'll be forced to actually communicate.
Sometimes when reading a novel, I'll mark pages that I think are important or interesting, or I'll flag a quote that I want to read again. When I read Markus Zusak's Underdogs, I ended up with countless little flags in various colors. It was really pretty. With Anna and the French Kiss, however, I marked only a couple things. And they were not positive ones. They were phrases that stood out to me in a bad way. The most glaring was this: "My eyes look like I've mistaken cranberry juice for Visine, and my lips are swollen like wasp stings." Cranberry juice? Really? This sentence feels like a forced attempt to say something ordinary in an original way. It strikes me as something that would come from an inexperienced writer during a creative writing workshop. And it feels overwrought (though I guess that's Anna, who tends to be melodramatic).
In all fairness, I did like the novel in places. I enjoyed reading Bridgette's emails to Anna with her extravagant use of big words from the OED. I missed this when Anna stopped communicating with Bridgette. Parts of the book were very well done. I particularly liked the Thanksgiving section and the Christmas break section. It was during these moments that Anna and St. Clair began to talk and develop a legitimate and realistic relationship. They were connecting and forging bonds of trust and a relationship based on real conversation and shared feelings; they were becoming best friends. Too often with YA fiction, the romance seems to magically appear. That's not the case with Anna and the French Kiss. Perkins handled the romantic build-up very well. That's why it was so frustrating and disappointing to see Anna and St. Clair take steps backward and sabotage themselves upon returning to school after Christmas break. But there's the rub. We return once more to the problem of insufficient narrative tension or interest outside of the romantic storyline. If our young lovers had communicated their feelings honestly, and if they had gotten out of their own way sooner, the novel would have ended pretty quickly: Boy dumps girl he doesn't really like for girl he does like. The end.