For months now, my teenage sister has been trying to get me to read Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss. The premise reminded me of the Janet Quin-Harkin titles in the Sweet Dreams series (Exchange of Hearts, Lovebirds, and Ghost of a Chance, to name a few), where the Heroine is forced to go to a new country/state/town for a set period time (anywhere from a summer vacation to a year), where she finds love/independence/self-worth or some variation thereof. From the cover to the title, this book makes no secret of just how close it adheres to that romantic trope. But to my surprise, it's much more layered than I had expected, making me wish that I had listened to my sister a little sooner.
Anna is forced to spend her senior year at an international boarding school in France instead of in her familiar high school in Atlanta. She hates that she has to leave her latest crush behind, especially when they're thisclose to being a couple. Not only does she have to start over as a new kid while in her senior year, she has to do it in a place where she barely speaks the national language. Little does she know that that's only the least of her problems. When she befriends Meredith, Etienne, and the rest of their group, Anna must struggle with the fragile balance between friendship and romance, and stand up for what she wants in the process.
The characters are delightfully nuanced, especially Etienne St Clair, the object of Anna's affections. He is far from perfect -- both physically and emotionally -- and yet he remains a person whom the romantic reader can support. I like the dynamics of their group. All five of them come across as real friends, with their petty fights and their secret fears and their ability to understand each other even when they don't like each other very much. I thought the book captured Anna's precarious position in the group -- not wanting to rock the boat but not knowing where to take her own feelings either.
It would have been so easy to let the setting overwhelm the story. Paris is the city for romance; what more can two hot-blooded teenagers want? But what I admired in Ms Perkins' work was that she let the story tell itself. Paris, for all of Anna's explorations, remains a lovely backdrop, never stealing the attention away from Anna and Etienne.
I also enjoy how gradual this story is. Their relationship clearly moves from stage to stage, taking its time to establish how Anna comes to depend on Etienne as her staunchest friend despite her romantic attraction to him. It is sweet and honest, and it really shows me that a story can have a seemingly light theme but still carry weight. Highly recommended to YA fans and romance readers.