Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles

leaving paradise cover

Leaving Paradise is a book about forgiveness and responsibility, but is also a Cinderella tale gone wrong.

A year ago, Caleb Becker confessed to hitting Maggie Armstrong's car while driving drunk.  In the wreck's aftermath, Caleb was sentenced to almost a year in juvenile detention and Maggie had to go through a year's worth of painful surgeries and physical therapy just to get out of a wheelchair and walking.  Now Caleb is back in his hometown of Paradise, expecting everything to be the same and to move on with his life.  But everything isn't the same--not for the people Caleb left behind when he was sentenced, and especially not for Maggie. 

Elkeles was admirably ambitious with this novel in terms of plot and storytelling.  You think you know what's going on at the beginning, but as the book progresses you realize you don't, and the actions of the characters start to make sense in a whole different way. 

Maggie at first seems like a whiner (not that I blame her; I've thrown pity parties over a lot less than she's had to go through), but as you learn more about her you realized that the accident has completely erased Maggie's self-identity.  Everything she thought was true and certain in the world and about herself has been turned on its head, and as a result she has no self-confidence.

Caleb, meanwhile, is an odd character.  He's a mix of bad boy and knight-in-shining armor, and it doesn't quite work.  In a way, Caleb and Maggie go through a role reversal during the course of this book--he starts off having all the confidence in the world, or at least appearing to, and then loses it and his emotional center, after which he decides to leave Paradise.  Maggie had no confidence and wants to get away from Paradise, but questions her motives for leaving and gains a sense of purpose.

I mentioned earlier that this book is a Cinderella tale gone wrong--there are definitely elements taken from the fairy tale, like the fairy godmother, the dress, the wicked stepsisters, and the magical ball.  But this isn't a retelling of the fairy tale by any means, and the novel seems to fight a little too deliberately against the happily ever after ending.

Overall, I thought Leaving Paradise was really good.  But the last 100 pages were a train wreck.  They were very choppy and rushed, and I lost all sense of Caleb's motivation.  It was as if after setting us up to believe that Caleb and Maggie could get together, Elkeles suddenly changed her mind and decided they couldn't and shouldn't.  But she didn't take the time to set us up for that, so it was difficult to follow.  There were also a bunch of plotlines just left hanging at the end, and it didn't feel like a whole book.

This is obviously an early book by Elkeles, but even though it faltered in the end execution, I still love the author's voice and feel invested in the characters.  Naturally, I'll be picking up the sequel to Leaving, and I can only hope the loose ends are wrapped up and the story is well-concluded then.

Side note:  I freaking love this cover.  Touch is a big deal in Leaving Paradise, and the cover is visually striking and captures that theme and the tension between Maggie and Caleb perfectly.

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