TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
I read (and kinda loved) Simone Elkeles' Walker Books teen romances "Perfect Chemistry" and "Rules of Attraction." Afterward, I knew I had to dig up the star-crossed love tales she wrote for the Flux imprint of Llewellyn. Hence, in the last week, I rolled through "Leaving Paradise" and "Return to Paradise." Although I didn't enjoy the "Paradise" books nearly as much as the "Perfect Chemistry" novels — they lack intensity and steaminess, two crucial elements for romance! — I'd still recommend them. Yes, there are stock characters and recycled plotlines galore, but these books are still eminently readable, super fun, and incredibly addicting.
In the first book, "Leaving Paradise," one of our narrators is disabled teen Maggie, who was the victim of a hit and run accident by a drunk driver. After multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation, Maggie still experiences great pain in her injured leg and walks with a severe limp. A former tennis star and popular girl, she's now a friendless, isolated recluse. Maggie is weak and scared, and she's clearly internalized the idea that she will always be a "crippled" loser. The other narrator here is Caleb, the handsome, cocky ex-jock who hit Maggie and has just spent a year in juvenile lockup paying for his crime. You know these two are going to fall in love, right? Just in case this setup isn't outlandish enough, let me add the following soap opera details:
(a) Caleb is Maggie's next door neighbor;
(b) Caleb's twin sister Leah is Maggie's former bff;
(c) Maggie crushed on Caleb for years and told him she loved him the night of the accident;
(d) Maggie has no memory of the accident; and
(e) Maggie's after school job and Caleb's community service are … wait for it … at the home of the same curmudgeonly yet kindhearted old woman, Mrs. Reynolds.
Yeah, it is what it is. While Caleb builds a gazebo for Mrs. Reynolds, Maggie plants flowers. She discovers an inner strength that she thought had died, while Caleb learns to let go of some of his anger and allow others back into his life. It seems to take very little for Maggie to fall for Caleb again, which I had a hard time buying. I'm all for forgiveness, but, really? On Caleb's end, working with Maggie helps him see how kind and beautiful she is and before he knows it, love is in the air. Of course, Caleb is forbidden from having contact with his victim and Maggie's mom would freak, so all the smooching — which is actually not that much! — has to be kept on the down low. And then some things happen, which I won't reveal, and a secret emerges, which is pretty obvious, and the book ends so abruptly I literally checked to make sure no pages were missing. Hrm.
"Leaving Paradise" was definitely not my favorite. I never felt the passion between Maggie and Caleb, and I could not get past the contrived scenario, rapid transformations, and flat characters (besides a cranky but sweet grandmother type we also have the beautiful, bitchy ex-girlfriend and the tough, no-nonsense — but with a heart of gold! — African-American juvy counselor). Having said that, I went straight out and read "Return to Paradise," because I had to know what happened. So take what I just said with a grain of salt. 😉
I much preferred "Return to Paradise" over its predecessor. It's eight months later, Maggie has graduated from high school, and she is embarking on a six-week drinking / drug awareness tour of camps and youth groups. You want to guess who returns to town and unexpectedly joins the same tour? Yup, our boy Caleb. He and Maggie will be in a van traveling the Midwest together, far from their hometown of Paradise. Without giving too much away, these two aren't the best of friends as the trip starts. I liked how the characters are far better developed in this book. Caleb is more wounded, so he's harder and more closed off from the world. His feelings of anger and frustration radiate off him, but inside, he's afraid. Much like the Fuentes brothers in the "Perfect Chemistry" series, Caleb uses arrogance and abrasiveness to mask his pain. Maggie is also more complex. She's much stronger and has found a greater sense of peace here, as she has come to realize that her accident and injured leg do not define or limit her. (Rock on, girl.) Yet she's also still worried and vulnerable.
What else works better here? Lenny, one of the other kids on the trip, is a great character. He's obnoxious, gross, and generally a pain in the neck, but we soon learn there's a lot more going on with this guy. His plight, as well as Caleb's estrangement from his family and his own longing for a home, added some much needed emotional depth to the story. I also liked this more focused and confident Maggie, as she's now able to take Caleb's barbs and throw them right back at him. Her tenacity made their verbal sparring more compelling. Most importantly, we get some much-needed steam back in this novel. I'm not talking about tawdriness — we are given ample foul language but not much explicit sex at all — but more about the fire of this forbidden romance. And author Elkeles is a master at turning up this kind of heat and keeping it appropriate for a teen audience. Plus … we end on a happy note.
Over all, I'd say to expect some limitations with the plot and characters in "Leaving Paradise," but work your way through it and get to "Return to Paradise." You'll be rewarded with an engrossing teen romance with better characterization, stronger emotional intensity, and some real romantic tension. Both books are out now. Enjoy!