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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)

Date: 2011-03-09 06:35 am (UTC)
chrisa511: (Default)
From: [personal profile] chrisa511
Yay Lady Business \o/ Ana, this sounds amazing! I knew I wanted to read it before, but you've just convinced me to read it sooner. The points you make are so very excellent in this review. I hate the idea that for everyone there is the perfect "one" who is meant to be and that when you meet that person it will be nothing but kittens and rainbows forever. That is an unrealistic view of love. For me, part of love is strengthening through those rough moments. Not that I want them, but they're inevitable. I also LOVE that there is talk of Lost in Translation in this book >> Any book that talks about that movie has to be a good book...yes yes.

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