Anna Oliphant is distraught because her father insisted she spend her senior year in a boarding school in Paris, so she can be closer to him…and her mother agrees. She’s never spent more than a few days away from her home town of Atlanta, and doesn’t want to leave her friends, her job, the two cute guys she knows, her movie reviewing blog and all that’s familiar to her. Most of all, she doesn’t want to leave her little brother, who’s allergic to Red Dye #40, alone after school; the fact that he’s going to take care of her guinea pig1, Captain Jack, doesn’t alleviate her concerns about leaving her responsibilities on the home front.
When she first arrives, things don’t seem much improved: her room is “smaller than her suitcase”–only about 7′ by 10′–and the toilets are down the hall although she’s got a microscopic shower and sink in her room; the menu’s in French so she has no idea what to order although the cafeteria does offer real coffee; and worst of all, she’s stuck in first-year French with the freshmen as she’s never taken a class in French in her entire life. Although the girl in the room next to hers proves both friendly and a real friend in the end, she does get rather off on the wrong foot, literally and socially, by colliding with Etienne St. Clair in the hallway. French name, English accent–what’s he doing in a Parisian school for Americans? Anna is as confused as most readers are at this point…just in case anyone hadn’t guessed by about the second chapter in, he’s the love interest despite having a girlfriend (other than Anna) for most of the book. Also despite his being several inches shorter than Anna.
The two spend that entire school year circling around each other, trying to justify spending so much time together by calling themselves “just friends” or “taking the new girl under my wing”. They spend evenings cruising all the art movie theaters in the school’s neighborhood, getting all overheated when they accidentally (no, really!) bump thighs in the dark, and cooling off drinking espressos afterwards to discuss the films (no, really!). In the first semester, they really are just good friends, as Anna is assuming she’ll return home to reignite an as yet incipient relationship with one of her coworkers at the movie theater…but she finds out over Christmas break that her best friend Bridgitte and “Toph” (short for Christopher) have begun dating one another but haven’t been sure how to to mention it to her.
It’s a teen angst-ridden romance in which the heroine sets the tone of the book by whining about her parents’ decision to send her overseas; in fairness to Anna, what she’s complaining about is more being separated away from her friends and familiarity than going to Paris. She does acclimate to the general sophisticated culture of Paris fairly early on, especially after she learns the French for “crepe with Nutella folded around a banana”, and even by the end of the book has learned enough spoken French to understand a heated discussion between St. Clair and his father.
Compared to, say, Nnedi Okorafor’s books, this is very much a “rich white girls’ problems” book…so why did I end up liking it? I’m going to go out on a limb and put this in the “why it’s so hard to do proper readers’ advisory” category. In theory, I should have hated it. Heck, I’d consent to being transformed into the high school senior “me” for a year if somebody gave me an all-expenses-paid school year in Paris, and I speak only a little more French than Anna; Anna’s whining about how little she wanted to do this left me wanting to slap her. I love science fiction, not teen-angst chicklit. In theory, I should have loved Matched, Wither and Across the Universe…but it’s this one I willingly finished. Based purely on the plot, I should have tossed this book aside after a couple of chapters even if (as was indeed the case) I was stranded in a auto repair shop with nothing else to do but watch the Olympics water polo competition. However, as with all decently written “learning experience” books, Anna does in fact learn a great deal this year, and things that will stand her in good stead later in life. Starting with: communicate. Speak to your friends. If you’ve been friends with them as long as all that, don’t let a misunderstanding born of silence split you. Also, it’s OK for boys to be distraught about their mothers’ illness.
As for what to read next, I haven’t had enough literary experience to suggest anything based on what I’ve read, but here’s a review with some suggestions. It’s a great book for people who like romances in which the romance is the central plot point–how could a book be otherwise if it’s about hormone-riddled teenagers in Paris in April? As far as parental advisories go: There is some discussion of sex, and a bit of heavy snogging, though no…er…clothes-off activity that would require contraceptives, but Anna herself has made it clear she won’t go all the way with anyone whom she’d be embarrassed to describe to potential offspring. So they don’t. On a couple of occasions, some of the kids get pass-out pukingly drunk but this is hardly presented as an Excitingly Mature Activity; rather, those who overindulge end up with miserable bodyovers the following day that leave them capable of little more than nibbling the corner of a piece of dry toast before retreating to a dark corner.
1rodent pet, anyway; Captain Jack may be a gerbil for all I know