Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

I gave Anna and the French Kiss three stars. Let's put that up front and get it out of the way right now. I know a lot of people absolutely adore that book and I feel telling you this may give you some insight in where I'm coming from before I begin talking.

With that said, I liked Lola better. While I did still have some issues with the book, I also feel that Perkins is going the "right way" as a writer and is getting better. I also have to admit that I did not get to read this as "straight through" as I would have liked. I've been really busy with a lot of things and this got read between them.

But that doesn't mean I don't have an opinion. :) Here is my review of Lola and the Boy Next Door.

The Plot: (Summary from GoodReads)
Budding designer Lola Nolan doesn’t believe in fashion . . . she believes in costume. The more expressive the outfit -- more sparkly, more fun, more wild -- the better. But even though Lola’s style is outrageous, she’s a devoted daughter and friend with some big plans for the future. And everything is pretty perfect (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the dreaded Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighborhood.

When Cricket -- a gifted inventor -- steps out from his twin sister’s shadow and back into Lola’s life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door.

As is the case with most of the contemporary YA I've read and liked, Lola and the Boy Next Door thoroughly brought me into Lola's life and let me experience her world fully. The main focus of the plot is, of course, the return of Cricket Bell. But the bond between Lola and her parents, and the situation with her and her (current, as of the beginning of the book) boyfriend, Max, helped to flesh out the story and make everything feel more real.

Perkins uses the same general plot device -- one of the characters is not available -- that she used in Anna and the French Kiss. While I still don't necessarily feel that it is the strongest or most compelling plot device (which may well have to do with a background in fantasy, paranormal and science fiction) I think it worked better having the spoken-for party be the narrator. While I did not feel that the reader got to clearly see what was going on with Etienne, which made me feel slightly cheated, I felt that I really got to watch Lola grow and her perception of what she had with Max shift and change.

Her parents played such a huge role in this story and I really liked them. There is so much YA where parents don't really get to have a part. I felt it was refreshing to see them add so much to both the conflict that drove the plot -- they don't like Max -- and to the depth and scope of Lola's world. Much like Lola, there were moments that I thought they were awesome and moments where I sat there thinking "Yep. I'll keep my own, thanks!" I also think that Perkins did a good job of creating a complicated family dynamic without taking any cheap shots at it. When I heard the varying things she was doing here I was curious how that would turn out, but I feel she handled everything in this department with style and grace.

I liked the appearances from Anna and Etienne, too. It was nice to see what was happening with them, and I didn't see the mistake of having them take over or overshadow Lola and Cricket's book, which was something I was concerned about. Rather, the connection between these characters made it feel that the world -- even though it is our own -- that Perkins was writing in had continuity; that it could and did grow and change. That characters kept living after a cover was closed. 

The Characters:

Despite how quirky she was, I genuinely liked Lola. I don't know whether I want to go so far as to say that I could totally relate to her, but she wasn't the type of character who had me running for cover and wanting to launch a book in the air from a catapult. I found her interest in fashion, and her devotion to it, interesting. I also like that by the end of the book she comes to value the fact that it should enhance her, rather then mask or hide her. This was a difference that I felt she had trouble recognizing and I was glad to see that addressed. 

Cricket was great, and I was definitely counting on and looking forward to that. Regardless of any other comments I might make about Stephanie Perkins writing, she is an absolute master at creating male leads who are equal parts swoon-worthy and down to earth. Cricket is an intriguing character who has clearly taken time to get as comfortable in his skin as he now is. And even though he has grown and adapted, he still possesses a certain level of vulnerability that made me feel that he is the kind of guy I would love to swipe from Lola myself. (If I was a character who was the right age, etc. obviously!)

Max is the downfall, unfortunately. I agree with those who say that his development does not make full sense. I got a distinct feeling that Perkins felt responsible for discouraging dating between adults and minors. If this issue bothered her, I feel it would have been in better service of the story not to go there. The way that Max's character changes throughout the story felt unnatural and forced. I was really hoping my view on this would be different, but I have to call it like I see it. 

The Romance: 

I think that the majority of what happens between Lola and Cricket is very sweet. I liked learning about their history and being able to see how they have grown and changed. This also helped to ensure that there was no doubt that this wasn't something that was instant -- not that Stephanie Perkins needs any help in that area of her writing! 

As I said with Anna, I am not the biggest fan of people leaving one relationship because of another. I didn't feel as strongly about this in Lola as I did in Anna, likely because the situation is on Lola's end and is much clearer. Still, I must give the save statement I gave in Anna... Who says someone better won't come along again? I get it. They're teenagers and perhaps this is the "point". But regardless of age group, when I read a romance I don't want to be thinking "...and two weeks later they broke up." I didn't feel this as strongly here, and clearly Etienne and Anna *didn't*. But it's a pet peeve of mine.

Once again, let me say that Max and Lola, as a couple, was a giant weak point. If he was a crappy boyfriend, that should have been apparent from either the *very* beginning, or at least very early on. Not just when it became convenient for the story. This didn't ruin the book, but it did stand out in a not-so-flattering way. I really hope that Stephanie Perkins can find a new plot device to move her books forward at some point, because this one (unlike in fantasy where we might be able to argue that everyone wants to save the world, to be fair...) is very narrow and does not leave a lot of room for interpretation.

In General:

Bah, I did it again didn't I? I did a whole bunch of complaining and nit-picking. I really don't do that to be cruel. I think that Stephanie is a truly gifted writer and that in the aspects of writing that her strengths lie in -- creating richly detailed lives for her characters, creating guys who are truly worthy book crushes and writing in a style that is both richly descriptive and effortless to read -- she genuinely excels. 

It's because she is this good at these things that I am pointing out issues that I see. Not only because I know a lot of people are going to see Stephanie Perkins and do an auto-five-star because they loved the story. But also because I genuinely believe that she is going to keep getting better and better. And when she finally does write something that I feel is worthy of five stars -- or even the Kat's Meow -- I want to be able to give that to her. 

As for Lola and the Boy Next Door? Go and grab it up! It's "Great!" and is the sort of book that is perfect for reading by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa. This book will be making the rounds to my family and friends this holiday season and I'm sure that *they* will be the one's asking me "What the heck were you talking about in that review?" 

If you loved Anna and the French Kiss, then it follows that Lola and the Boy Next Door should be on your bookshelf. For those who haven't read either book, you really should. Despite my nitpicking, they really are a fine example of high quality, well written fluffy contemporary romance. Enjoy! 


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