Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles

return to paradise cover

When last we saw Caleb Becker, he had just gotten out of a year in juvenile detention for hitting his sister's best friend with a car while driving drunk.  Returning to Paradise, Illinoise, he discovered his mom was addicted to prescription meds, his sister was emo (the horror), and the girl he'd run over--well, he was kinda into her.  But then Caleb decided he'd had it with his hometown and--extended metaphor alert!!!--exiled himself from Paradise.

Now the boy with the black fire tattoo is back.  Only, wait--no he's not.  He just has to go through a summer program to scare teens into not drinking and driving, which doesn't take place in Paradise.  But lo! The girl he hit with his car, Maggie, is in the program, too!  What an amazing coincidence.  God must really want these two people to be together.

This book is the follow-up to Leaving Paradise, which I liked but had some problems with.  Take those problems and magnify them times what-the-heck-is-going-on-here, and you have this novel.  It was all just a little too convenient--Caleb just happens to run into Maggie in the program, he just happens to return to juvie, where he just happens to talk to his old cell mate, who just HAPPENS to have valuable words of wisdom, and on and on.  Furthermore, the story doesn't really have any sort of narrative arc--it feels like it hits the restart button several times, and doesn't have a climax at all.  Instead, it meanders episodically and little repetitively.

The main characters, Caleb and Maggie, were difficult for me to connect with and their voices weren't very distinct.  Elkeles' style is to have one chapter told from the heroine's perspective and one from the hero's, alternating through the whole book.  Usually the characters are each very unique and it's easy to tell them apart, but here I had to remind myself who was "talking" a few times.  The motivation behind their actions was never very clear, but it got worse in the second half.  For example, they are both super-understanding with their parents, who act insane; but when it comes to being tolerant and communicative with each other, Caleb and Maggie do a major fail whale.  But hey, if they actually talked, the book would be, what, fifty pages?

I did like the supporting characters in the novel, such as Lenny, Trish, and Julio; and in fact I wish that the book had been about them instead of Caleb and Maggie.  Even though it's called Return to Paradise, Caleb doesn't actually return to Paradise until the novel is over half-over!  By then I reeeeeally felt like the book should be wrapping up, not just starting to get to the point.

I also feel like Elkeles' novels are becoming a little formulaic (you're shocked by this development, I'm sure).  Caleb is essentially the same, doesn't-feel-like-he-can-do-any-good bad boy that we saw with Alex in Perfect Chemistry and Carlos in Rules of Attraction.  And the wet kissing scenes are getting to eye-roll level now--honestly, what if Spiderman kissed Mary Jane upside down in every. single. movie?  It would be ridiculous!

I'm not saying I'm giving up on Elkeles, but this book did not work for me.  It felt very manufactured and thrown together.  Hopefully that won't be the case with wet kissing scene number three--I mean, Chain Reaction.

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