Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: Leaving Paradise, Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles

Leaving Paradise and Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles are a pair of books about two teens named Caleb and Maggie and their weird relationship. Weird doesn't even begin to cover it: at the beginning of Leaving Paradise, Caleb is released from juvie after a year long sentence for hitting Maggie with his car while drunk and driving off, leaving her unconscious and injured on the street. Maggie is left with a crushed leg, a year's worth of PT, a permanent limp, and lots of anger. Caleb and Maggie grew up as next door neighbors and his sister was Maggie's BFF until the accident. After unintentionally reuniting when Caleb comes home, he and Maggie each discover understanding and solace in the other after struggling to find it in others. They end up falling for each other by the end of Leaving Paradise but unsurprisingly, circumstances - including a whopper of a secret - force them to split. In Return to Paradise, which takes place eight months later, Caleb and Maggie reunite when they both participate in a summer-long trip, traveling with a group to see other teens so that they can share their stories about the aftermath of underage drinking and driving. Will Caleb and Maggie resolve their problems after being pushed together again or won't they? What's the big secret and what will it do to their families?

Simone Elkeles has reputation of writing earnest and realistic YA fiction and I first heard of her book Perfect Chemistry and it's sequel Rules of Attraction - both books I plan to read someday - but Leaving Paradise appealed to me a bit more. After reading Paradise, I wanted Return to Paradise in an almost rabid intensity but was disappointed by the reviews for it; some people disliked it intensely. Reviewers I respect panned it and I am still surprised by those reactions because I thought that these two books handle their stories capably and honestly. I didn't like Return quite as much as Leaving but I respected the way Elkeles wrapped up the two.

In Leaving Paradise, Caleb gets out of juvie only to find that his family has imploded. His mother pretends that he wasn't in jail but instead makes the pretense that he was away for much more innocent reasons so that she can keep face with her friends; his father treats him as if he's a threat to the family; his twin sister has done an about face - she's gone goth and is  antisocial. He's angry at his family and his former friends and himself but most of all, he's angry with Maggie. She shouldn't have been at that party where he got drunk and she shouldn't have been on the street where she was hit. He's always liked Maggie but now she is The Girl Who He Hurt and The Girl Who Sent Him to Jail. She makes him feel guilty and ashamed and tries to avoid her at all costs. Maggie also has problems: her dad left she and her mom when she was little so they don't have much money; her friends, including Caleb's sister, ditched her after the accident; she can't play tennis anymore; her trip to Spain to study abroad, once a sure thing, is now slipping through her fingers; Caleb is now home and keeps showing up where she doesn't want him. They fight, grow closer, and eventually fall for one another.  

Return to Paradise, however, has a tone much different from the young love feeling of Leaving. Caleb had left at the end of Leaving Paradise because he couldn't handle all the feelings and issues that come with being at home and with Maggie. He's in danger of returning to jail because he's self-destructing, folding under the pressure of everyone's expectations and that horrible secret he's keeping. Seeing Maggie again scares him and so he keeps lashing out at her, trying to drive her away even though he can't let her go. It's a little painful to watch, seeing Caleb hurting Maggie even further, but I understood his reasons even if I didn't like them. I found it a bit surprising that between the two, Caleb's voice was the one that spoke to me the most. I liked him, this stubborn yet loyal boy who sacrifices more than anyone should have to in order to protect someone he loves. You'd think that I'd identify a bit more with Maggie and while I liked her, she didn't appeal to me as much as Caleb. I see him as much a victim as Maggie.

So. Here is a positive review of Return to Paradise. Leaving Paradise is a more obvious choice for applause but Return to Paradise deserves it too. Those Elkeles fans who prefer her Perfect Chemistry storyline will be happy to know that she's writing a third book for them. In either case, give Simone Elkeles a try sometime.


Brahmin in Boston said...

You *HAVE* to read Perfect Chemistry! That is the only book I have reread after Harry Potter books!

I have these books on my TBR pile and God knows when I will get to them! Haha

Jen said...

Oh, don't worry. I am definitely looking forward to it and already have a copy. Did you like the sequel?

Brahmin in Boston said...

Hey there! No I haven't had the chance to read that :(

But hopefully soon!