Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

I adore this book, Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins! If you’re looking for a fun teen romance involving international travel and lovable characters, this is it! Anna is an earnest, spunky Atlanta teen with a love for cinema. She dreams of becoming a film critic. She’s also an endearing germophobe. Her BFF is a girl named Bridge, and her co-worker at the movie theater? Well, let’s say he might become something more than a co-worker. Anna’s life is progressing just fine in Georgia, thank you very much, when her father decides– despite Anna’s protests– to send her away for senior year to a boarding school in Paris.

On her first night at the “School of America in Paris,” Anna is sobbing her heart out, when the friendly girl-next-dorm, Meredith, comes to her rescue with some hot chocolate. Anna quickly fits in with Meredith’s clique of artsy friends, and is instantly smitten with Meredith’s crush, a charismatic London boy – with perfect hair – named Étienne St. Clair. Unfortunately for both Anna and Meredith, Étienne already has a serious girlfriend. But it’s evident that Anna’s feelings for Étienne might be reciprocated, despite the fact that Étienne keeps (infuriatingly!) returning to his girlfriend. No sweat, Anna tells herself: there’s still that guy back home. …Or is there?

In a year of serendipity, confusion, heartache and forgiveness, the funny, reliable Anna and charming Étienne take on Paris, navigating the winding roads of their awkward, puzzling, and ambiguous best-friendship. Romantic comedy-esque he-said/she-said fills these pages, but in a well-written, addictive way. (I was so engrossed, I was literally dreaming about this book at night!) Following Anna’s hilariously self-deprecating thoughts and entertaining inner monologues in the first person, present tense, often felt like stepping into my own brain. It was easy to relate to Anna and get wrapped up in her emotions. I loved how genuine and candid she was, not ashamed to show her passion, but also able to laugh at herself and admit her shortcomings. Étienne is also a three-dimensional, convincing character. He practically jumps off the page– all of Perkins’s characters do. Believable, tangible characters and realistic dialogue are this author’s greatest strengths. I also enjoyed the travel aspect of the novel, as Anna adjusts to the culture shock of life in Paris.

Anna and the French Kiss is a sweet (and at times heartbreaking) romance for young adults. One scene that sticks with me is Anna and Étienne’s bittersweet Thanksgiving holiday in Paris. This book is light and funny, yet heartfelt, sometimes tear-jerking. A good read.

Book Review: Madame Tussaud, A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran

Historical fiction author Michelle Moran tackles the story of the famous wax sculptor, Madame Tussaud, in her novel, Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution. We meet Marie Grosholtz, later to become Madame Tussaud, as a Parisian woman in her late twenties. Since childhood, she was apprenticed by her mother’s employer and romantic partner, Curtius, to learn wax sculpting. In the late 1700s (long before the advent of television and photography – obviously), the public would tour their wax figure gallery, the Salon de Cire, in order to see what the famous politicians and celebrities of their time looked like. Otherwise, people had nothing but newspaper etchings to put faces to the prominent names of their era. In this way, I was surprised to learn that the Salon, or gallery, had more of a functional media purpose, rather than being just a novelty. As such, Marie, her “uncle” Curtius, and Marie’s mother live a fairly comfortable life, due to their commercial success.

But with the advent of the French Revolution, politics take over the Salon de Cire. Marie and Curtius can no longer display likenesses of the royal family, such as Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, or notorious people of the court, like Madame du Barry, without the threat of the Revolutionaries executing them for royalist sympathies. Marie and Curtius’s job is to survive and make money, which can only be accomplished by sculpting the likenesses of whomever the people in power would like to see– in this case, the (disorganized, incompetent) patriot leaders, such as Marat, Robespierre, the Duc d’Orleans, etc. Yet, at the same time, Marie has befriended the king’s sister, Madame Elisabeth. Marie spends most of the story as a secret royalist, torn between her ambition for success, and her horror at the injustice and anarchy of the Reign of Terror brought about by the Revolutionaries. As well, a slow-moving romance between Marie and the scientist, Henri Charles, develops in the background. The two love each other, but Marie doesn’t wish to become a wife and mother. Her passion is her work.

The novel does not give the complete life story of Madame Tussaud, but focuses on the five-year period of her career during the Reign of Terror. We learn in the epilogue that the real Mme Tussaud lived for nearly a century, survived a shipwreck, went on to reap success in London, and had a very odd relationship with her future husband and sons, which would’ve been very interesting to read about in novel form. A missed opportunity? Overall, an educational and well-researched story, though it does contain some graphic, gory content. Readers interested in French history or how revolutions work will want to check this out.

Book Review: Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, Austria-France, 1769

This is a very neat little retelling/fictitious diary of Marie Antoinette’s younger years, and her days before she becomes the notorious Queen of France. The author uses her imagination to invent a childhood for Marie that girls today may relate to, and all the events leading up to her arranged marriage and the obscene pomp and pageantry she must endure at Versailles. This book, like others of its kind, paints Marie Antoinette as a sympathetic character and was originally a Scholastic Royal Diary. It would be interesting to read this and then follow it up with Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund, and then perhaps Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud, A Novel of the French Revolution, to get the whole scope of Marie’s life and death.

Book Review: Perfume by Patrick Suskind

suskindI decided to read Perfume by Patrick Süskind, based off of several recommendations from fellow readers. As the subtitle reveals, Perfume is indeed the story of a murderer, a young French psychopath, surnamed Grenouille. Born in the 1700s with a superhuman sense of smell, Grenouille masters the art of perfume-making and capturing odors. But when he comes upon the torturous, powerful scent of beautiful young maidens, Grenouille finds no way to recapture their scent but to murder them, and crudely extract the odor from their bodies. This is a dark story with graphic content.

Book Review: Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund

abundanceSena Jeter Naslund takes up the ambitious task of chronicling the life of Marie Antoinette, 18th century queen of France, in Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette. In this fictional journal/memoir, Naslund does not depict Marie Antoinette as the cold, vain and selfish queen as her reception has been throughout history. Rather, the young woman exposes herself to the reader as simply naive and misunderstood, as she shares “her side” of the story. We meet the young princess at the tender age of fourteen, when she leaves the home of her mother, Empress of Austria, to marry the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, Louis-Auguste. As Marie Antoinette tries to be a sweet and supportive wife, her young husband is unable to consummate their marriage. Not being able to bear the Dauphin an heir brings the young Dauphine much suffering.

Naslund’s thorough research on French royalty and history, and the court and culture of Versailles, is nothing short of remarkable. Most of the time, the reader has sympathy for the Dauphine, although at times her immaturity can be grating. While a very good introduction to Marie Antoinette, the author does shed a more favorable and sympathetic bias toward the queen, representing her as a compassionate, heartfelt young woman who was mortally misunderstood by the French people (and by some in the royal court). All of the queen’s negative aspects are instead left ambiguous– did she really make that error out of deliberate ignorance, or was she forced or misguided by someone else? Did she really have an affair with the French soldier, or was theirs simply a close yet innocent friendship? Either way, this is a very good work of historical fiction.

By the time I finished reading this novel, I felt as though I’d returned from an epic journey. Naslund really transports the reader to that place and time. Abundance is not easily forgotten, and I continue to carry what I’ve learned from it.

Book Review: Chocolat by Joanne Harris

chocolatIn a pious little French village in the 1960s, an unconventional, free-spirited single mother opens a chocolaterie during Lent. One-by-one, she changes and enriches the lives of the closed-off townspeople, infuriating the town’s traditional mayor. This novel may appeal to chefs and chocolate lovers alike, and reads quite differently than the charming film based off of it.

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

persepolisI had a stint reading graphic novels in high school. It all started when I was eyeing the Persepolis books by Marjane Satrapi in my school library, planning on reading them as soon as I was on break, only to open them and be utterly dismayed that they were comic books. “Not comic books,” the librarian corrected me. “Graphic novels. They’re actually very good. You should still read them.”

In almost no time after beginning to read Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, I understood what the librarian meant. These were not comic books, but deep and well-written autobiographies with vast cultural, historical, and literary value. The author just happened to be an artist, and accompanied her story with illustrations. Along with the sequel, Persepolis: The Story of a Return, Iranian author Marjane Satrapi tells her story of growing up during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She shares with her readers what she witnessed during the changes in her country as they fell under stricter Muslim laws, her departure to attend school in France, and eventually the unfolding events of her life, personally and politically, upon her return home to Iran. Persepolis I and II are some of my favorite books.

Embroideries is the illustrated depiction of a women-centered conversation between generations of women in Marjane’s family circle. The women hilariously cover every topic from cooking to sex. It is an entertaining read with many humorous anecdotes. It succeeds in showing a candid, frank and humorous side of Muslim Persian women that we Westerners rarely see. In such a way, Embroideries unites women everywhere in our humor, experiences, and attitudes toward men. We are  – truly – all alike.

Chicken With Plums is the sad tale about a man in Marjane’s family who is said to have laid down and decided to die. His cold wife and (rather uncivilized… LOL) children dance about him as he reminisces on his life of disappointment and unrequited love, and eventually dies of a broken heart.

Book Review: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Lereux

phantomIn the book rendition of The Phantom of the Opera, later to be converted into the famous play, there is nothing supernatural about the Phantom. He’s really just sort of a weirdo, named Erik, who devised a bunch of special effects and secret passages in the opera house. An odd yet original and imaginative novel for the era – or at least, it would’ve been, but the English translation I read was difficult to follow at times.