I took a little break from all the Fantasy Literature to indulge in a different kind of pleasure – contemporary romantic Teen Lit, what I like to consider the movie theater candy of my reading diet. Honestly, I don’t read this type of thing very often, but Khy from Frenetic Reader is always mentioning how incredibly much she loves Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, so finally my curiosity got the better of me (despite the novel’s tweeny-bopper name and cover). I picked up a copy from the library and indulged, feeling just as guilty as if I was raiding the shelves of a bakery when I am supposed to be on a diet.
What I found was every bit as tasty as an éclair or a macaroon, although I’m still not convinced we could call this type of novel a “gourmet” treat. (I am, if you will recall, I recovering literary snob. I would like to think that I prefer Nobel Prize winning literature about depressing subjects and third world countries.) Anna and the French Kiss is a "pitch-perfect romantic comedy," to steal a phrase from Linna over at 21 Pages – I really can’t find fault with it, despite the battle between the obvious guilty pleasure that I experienced while reading and my overwhelming literary snobbery. I agree with Linna, who further writes in her review of Anna that, “This is the kind of story that’s just incredibly fun to read – entertaining characters, humorous situations, quirky dialogue, and the type of setting that makes you want to hop on a plane as soon as possible because it’s described so enticingly.” That is the perfect word for this RomCom: fun.
In fact, the reason why I can’t really find a whole lot wrong with the novel is because that’s its purpose and it more than fulfills its purpose. There may be a number of cliché elements – the popular mean girl, the guy who spreads a rumor that our heroine has slept with him, the jerk who distracts the heroine from her perfect romantic partner, and of course the happy ending when the girl and the boy end up together – but those are excusable precisely because Anna is a RomCom. If it didn’t speak the right language, readers would be off looking for something that matched more of their expectations. I doubt that anyone is coming to this book expecting to find the next Crime and Punishment; we’ve all signed up for some cotton candy reading here.
Yet, as I said, the novel is more like an éclair than cotton candy – it’s not sugary fluff. Oh sure, there are moments of dialog, banter and flirting that aren’t likely to appear in the next Nobel Prize-winning novel that I pick up. But these are the kinds of conversations that I remember were so thrilling to my teenage self – and would still be thrilling if I wasn’t a happily married old fogey. (In fact, why do you think I’m reading this novel? Because I still love the thrill of young and/or new romance. There’s just something so delicious about the excitement that you feel when you’re getting to know a person that seems to jibe with you perfectly…)
But the characters themselves have some real meat to them. (We’re getting away from the éclair metaphor, I know. Maybe I ought to be comparing this novel to a pasty instead…) St. Clair doesn’t know how to deal with his mother’s cancer, Rashmi has lost her best friend and doesn’t know how to begin confiding in someone else, and Anna herself – our hesitant, germophobic cinephile of a heroine – is truly intelligent. She’s a regular teenager, obsessed with boys and the acceptance of her peers, but she’s also a conscientious student and aspiring film critic. Perkins has done her homework, throwing in the word auteur (an influential director/filmmaker who exercises an usual amount of creative control over his or her movies, despite the ways that producers and others in the film industry typically overshadow the production of a film). Anna works hard at developing her film reviews and publishing them in her own blog, knowing that it will take a lot of hard work and dedication to become as well-known a female film critic such as Pauline Kael (another mention that wins Perkins points in my opinion). There are also several discussions from Anna’s English class about global literature in translation – kudos to Perkins again, for working in several mentions of novelists like Banana Yoshimoto and disparaging drippy novelists like Nicholas Sparks. All these things, from information about how radiation will effect St. Clair’s mother to discussions of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, all of these details mean that this RomCom isn’t simply filled with drivel.
For those of you who aren’t looking for a lesson in cinematography and film criticism, however, there are some delicious scenes – including the cat-fight between Anna and the popular mean girl. Essentially, the novel maintains a great balance between its entertaining and intelligent elements.
What emerges is a story that isn’t just about Anna finding the perfect guy, but about how she explores who she has been/is and decides the kind of person that she would like to be. Because she is shipped off to boarding school in Paris, Anna gains the kind of independence that most teenagers don’t fully experience until they go off to college, which forces her out of her comfort zone and into the territory of both self-exploration and self-examination. In many ways, Anna must become an adult as she learns to navigate the international waters without the guidance of her parents or the familiar comfort of any years-long friendships. She realizes some not-so-pleasant things about the ways that she handles relationships, but also discovers the kind of intelligence, determination, supportive love and loyal friendship of which she is truly capable. So while we can all cheer that Anna gets the boy in the end, there are so many other reasons to enjoy this novel and even respect the journey that Anna undertakes.
For teenage and adult readers alike, Anna and the French Kiss will be both a pleasurable and intelligent experience that may even help some people think about their own friendships and priorities, while ultimately still fulfilling our typical RomCom fantasies. For most, it won’t be a life-changing novel, but pick this one up on a gray afternoon and you won’t put it down all evening.