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Anna and the French Kiss The 10PM Question


For the first part of this series of posts, please read: On Showing & Telling & Making My Head Explode

I want to begin this second post by analysing examples numbers three and four in my list of novels that have been read in both feminist and anti-feminist ways. My current working theory is that the centrality of the problematic or controversial aspect to the novel or story’s overall themes makes a world of difference when it comes to the extent to which the plot is allowed to speak for itself. But it’s entirely possible that there might be more to it than that.

In Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Anna’s relationship with Meredith, the first person she befriends in France, shifts into understated tension over the fact that both of them are in love with the same boy. Likewise, Anna’s best friend back home disappoints her by becoming involved with the boy Anna liked before going to France. As I said before, I spent about two third of the book worrying this was going to be yet another girls-do-nothing-but-fight-over-boys sort of story, and my ultimate conclusion that Perkins avoided this huge pitfall is by no means universal.

What I think places Anna and the French Kiss firmly in portraying-is-not-endorsing territory is Anna’s realisation that this a problem, and how this ties in with the novel’s overall theme and stance on human relationships. Anna and the French Kiss is unapologetically a romance, but the points it makes about trust, communication, the dangers of entitlement and the slow build-up of intimacy go far beyond romantic relationships. In the end, Anna rekindles her friendships with Meredith and Beatrice not because some sort of agreement is reached about who “deserves” to get the boy, but because they all learn something about what you can reasonably expect from those who are close to you. They all learn about honest communication and entitlement and control – they all grow up, and thus grow closer as human beings.

In Kate de Goldi’s The 10PM Question, the protagonist, Frankie, befriends a girl named Sydney. Both Frankie and Sydney have complicated family backgrounds, and upon learning Sydney’s history Frankie has several uncharitable thoughts about her mother, including comparing what she does (letting the guys she’s dating pay the bills) to prostitution. This is thought in definite loaded and shaming terms, not in a neutral she-is-a-sex-worker sort of way. I’m in awe of the way de Goldi prevented the thoughts of her close third person protagonist from becoming the only voice that is heard within the story, and try as I might I’m not sure if I can exactly point out how she did it. The 10PM Question is actually a novel that goes beyond my current working theory, because it’s not that slut-shaming and the complex circumstances sex workers find themselves in are exactly central to the story. Yet de Goldi manages to introduce enough plurality into the universe of the novel that Frankie’s anger is shown for what it is and Sydney’s mother is ultimately humanised.

Something that worries me when I consider how I position myself before these stories is how much of my reading is influenced by factors outside the text. Some of these books came recommended by other writers or bloggers I love and respect – how much does that predispose me to give them the benefit of the doubt and read their ambivalent aspects in a positive light? Then again, we never read in a vacuum, so perhaps this shouldn’t worry me – perhaps I should just embrace it as an inevitable part of how we engage with texts.

Another issue I keep returning to is that of didacticism – I’m tempted to say that no, I certainly don’t want YA or any other form of fiction to be didactic, but then again, I’d first like to come across an unambiguous definition of “didactic”. Like “preachy”, I suspect it’s often used to mean “takes a clear stance about something I disagree with”. In a comment last week, my partner in crime Jodie said:
I think some of the best modern novels in the world include didactic 'comments' in amongst ambiguity, it's just that they do it much more elegantly than the word didactic implies. Paulo Bacigallupi's 'The Wind Up Girl' for example is hugely complex and ambiguous to the max. He never really lets his characters go off on 'here is the point I am trying to make' speeches and pretty awful things happen to good people, but there are deaths and consequences in his novel that reveal where he stands on everything, while he still allows the reader the freedom to make up their own minds on many issues.
This put me in mind of a point John Carey makes in the excellent What Good Are the Arts: that the idea that literature should strive to be “neutral” can and often does turn into a plea for it to be apolitical and disengaged with any sort of Big Issue – which is the opposite of what some of the most beloved literary works of all time have been doing for centuries and centuries. There is certainly such a thing as heavy-handedness, but I’m inclined to distrust those who are too quick to file any novel that makes some sort of political or social point under this heading.

This brings me back to my original question, which yes, I realise remains unanswered: where do you drawn the line between ideological engagement and heavy-handedness? What about between subtlety and disengagement? As we have seen, the centrality of the issues being dealt with to the novel as a whole have a role to play; afterthoughts rarely work (except when they do). Another factor that I think might be important is how the world at large frames the topic at hand – is it unacceptable enough that most readers will see a subtle critique for what it is?

Again, I shall quote my partner in crime, who took the words off my mouth in her comment to part one (and who really should be writing these posts for me):
… if general society perceives something as absolutely wrong a book is much more able to cast aside didacticism and effectively explore an issue from all angles, without being read as condoning that issue. So, for example, 'Lolita' presents a paedophilic protagonist that the reader is initially encouraged to sympathise with, but each reader knows that general society condemns paedophiles, so we're more willing to go along and see where Nabokov is going with this and feel like what he writes doesn't threaten out particular stance on this issue. Books about rape are different, because we don't all know that general society agree with our individual stance on rape (every day there's proof that many people just don't get what constitutes rape) and so anything written more ambiguously can lead the individual reader to feel like the book threatens to lend help to a view they despise.
I think this is absolutely true, but the supposed “revenge rapes” in Tender Morsels are actually of the kind society is mostly willing to accept as “real rapes” – unambiguously brutal and involving strangers. Still, the point nonetheless stands: it just might be that some readers are too wary of how rape is generally perceived and portrayed to tolerate any ambiguity at all; anything but firm, clear condemnations. As much as I sympathise with their wariness, though, I don’t think this makes for particularly good art (or even politically effective art, if you choose to think of it that way).

But suppose it’s murder we’re talking about rather than rape: a story like Shirley Jackson’s brilliant and chilling “The Lottery” doesn’t critique anything explicitly, but you’d be hard pressed to find readers who claim it endorses ritual killings (or so I hope, at least). Everyone knows that what happens in the story is a big no-no, so no explicit commentary is necessary. This is also true of a novel like Never Let Me Go (I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll refrain from saying more, but those who have read it will know what I mean). Yet if we return to slut-shaming and the Lyga story I mentioned in part one, the picture is much less clear. I don’t think slut-shaming has been exposed for what it is enough in the real world for a story like this to speak for itself. It goes on around us all the time, and it’s widely accepted as only right and proper. That makes the lack of overt pointers in the story problematic. Regardless of authorial intent (which only means so much, at any rate), it’s much too easy for Andi’s fate to be taken at face value exactly because this is what happens in real life.

But is it really the role of a writer to do something about this? Can you introduce these overt pointers while maintaining the narrative elegance Jodie speaks of? In Part Three: The Big Questions, I’ll attempt to address these questions, as well as others such as what can we reasonably expect from literature, and what does it all mean?
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Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
You know what, I love nothing more than a good love story. It’s a bit of a mystery why I don’t read more of them. I suppose it has to do with the fact that Romance as a genre intimidates me – not because I look down on it, but because it’s huge and I don’t know where to start. Besides, my less-than-mainstream views on love and romantic relationship make for a lot of potential annoyances when I read love stories. I’m not ever annoyed by stories that fall outside the choices I have made for myself, but I am very much annoyed by stories in which said choices are ridiculed or dismissed.

I suppose I’m difficult to please, though you wouldn’t think that the things I want and don’t want are a lot to ask for. I don’t want unacknowledged (or worse, lauded) entitlement issues. I don’t particularly want to read about how there’s only one tr00 luv out there for each of us, and therefore every other connection we form is meaningless and unimportant. I don’t want narratives that perpetuate the myth that honest communication and real intimacy will be easy if only you find The One. I do want honest explorations of communication, closeness and connections. And if they’re sexy and full of d’aww moments on top, all the better. Surely that’s not too much to ask for?

YA seems to be where I find these stories the most often, which is why I was dying to get my hands on Stephanie Perkin’s Anna and the French Kiss. And my friends, it was a breath of fresh air. Sweet, full of delicious sexual tension (and also with one of the best make out scenes ever), funny, smart, and peopled with characters I would gladly sacrifice a toe to be friends with.

Anna and the French Kiss tells the story of Anna Oliphant, a high school senior whose father, a Nicholas Sparkesque writer, sends her to boarding school in Paris. This is not something Anna is happy about at first, but soon after arriving she makes friends with her dorm neighbour, Meredith, who introduces her to her group of friends. These friendships help Anna feel more at home, and as a result she begins to enjoy being in a place as cool as Paris for a whole year. Meredith’s friends, by the way, include a French-named, British-accented, funny and smart and gorgeous boy, Étienne St. Clair. Étienne has a girlfriend, but that doesn’t stop Anna from developing feelings for him. What follows are almost 400 pages of will-they won’t-they, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anna and the French Kiss is unapologetically a romance, which means that it makes it clear from early on that the love story is going to take the centre stage. But I liked the fact that this didn’t mean that Anna or Étienne had nothing more going on in their lives. Anna in particular has friends and a family back in Atlanta, a passion for cinema, a complicated relationship with her parents, an interest in film theory, a movie review blog (!), and, you know, a personality, interests, and thoughts in her head about things other than this boy she’s head over heels in love with. So kudos for that to Stephanie Perkins.

As much as I loved this book, I spent a good chunk of it wondering if it failed the Bedchel test in about three hundred different ways. Another one of my “argh no can we please NOT haz?” rules is a story having the female characters’ relationships be exclusively mediated by men. Anna and the French Kiss threatened to go down that road when it threw Meredith and Anna, and also Anna and Bridgette (her best friend in Atlanta), against each other because of boys. But you know what? Then they talk about it. They discuss things and work through them and grow closer as a consequence (and thus go back to talking about things other than boys). These friendships are strengthened in the end, and the result is a narrative that doesn’t perpetuate dangerous myths about female enmity, but instead challenges them. Guess what? Girls can talk through things instead of pulling each other’s hairs and having mud fights. I know, I’m shocked too.

The same pattern is followed by the romantic relationship, really. There’s a lot of struggling before the will-they; a lot of learning how to communicate and how to be open and vulnerable; a lot of effort to achieve real closeness. Stephanie Perkins does sexual attraction extremely well, but she does the rest of it every bit as well. This is a story about friendship within the context of romantic love – a story about companionship and honesty and trust. Anna and Étienne spend a whole year getting to truly know each other, and it’s wonderfully sweet to watch.

There’s also a lot of working through entitlement issues, which I really appreciated. This is very much a nobody-is-perfect-but-let’s-give-things-an-honest-shot-anyway sort of story. In real life, nothing is ever simple and people constantly make mistakes, and consequently I have limited patience for stories that imply otherwise. There’s a lot of potential hurt involved when someone who’s already in a relationship falls in love with another person, but guess what? It happens, and it doesn’t make them a traitor. The same goes for someone falling in love with someone their best friend is also in love with. Huge can of worms, but nobody involved is a horrible person by definition, and nobody owes it to their friend to change how they feel.

Last but not least, a few words about the sexiness. The sexy bits made my heart beat faster, and no, I don’t care how clichéd that sounds. Anna totally wants Ètienne. This is sexual, in the sense that sexuality is about much more than intercourse – she’s not sure if she’s ready to go all the way yet, but there’s not faux moralism involved in her musings about sex. And best of all, she’s allowed to want him. Desire for Girls: Totally Allowed and Not a Big Deal. I mean, it is a big deal, in the sense that it’s emotionally momentous and awkward and a little overwhelming, but Perkins clearly feels no need to turn this into a cautionary tale. We need more stories like this, to counter all the dominant narratives that are still based on shaming. Thank you for doing your bit, Ms Perkins.

Bonus cool points: Intertextuality! Lots of allusions! Lost in Translation! Banana Yoshimoto! Pablo Neruda! Laura Esquivel! I’m all out of exclamation marks, I’m afraid. But really, what’s not to love?


(Posted by Ana)

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