Thursday, October 15, 2009

Leaving Paradise Left Me Behind

Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles has an intriguing premise: a year before the novel begins, Caleb Becker admitted to driving drunk, hitting his neighbor Maggie Armstrong, and then leaving the scene of the crime. Caleb was sentenced to serve a year in the Department of Corrections' juvenile jail, where he lived with gang members, was subjected to full body searches, and spent his time hardening both his body and his mind. The novel begins with Caleb's release from jail, and the reception he receives from his family and from the kids at school. One of the best aspects of the novel is that it is told in alternating chapters, going back and forth between Caleb's and Maggie's perspectives. Maggie has spent the previous year undergoing numerous surgeries and physical therapy to help heal the leg that was ruined by the accident. She is angry that Caleb is released and can go back to what she perceives as his "normal life", while she has been forever damaged by his reckless behavior. Both Caleb's and Maggie's families have been changed by the accident, and both have unreasonable expectations of how their children should act in the accident's aftermath. Caleb's mother wants him to pretend to be a cleancut, preppy kid for the sake of outward appearances, while his sister has become totally goth and largely unrecognizable. The reasons for this are revealed later in the novel. Maggie's mother (her father has left the family and holds Maggie at arm's length) desperately wants her to be happy and to feel like she fits in with the rest of the kids at school, which is far from reality. Maggie and Caleb are forced to confront one another when they begin helping an elderly woman after school, Maggie to make money for a trip to Spain, and Caleb to fulfill his community servicement requirements for parole. They begin to fall in love, but have to keep that love secret because how could anyone possibly understand why Maggie, the victim could forgive Caleb, much less fall in love with him? And how could anyone understand how Caleb can love damaged Maggie, when his ex-girlfriend Kendra is the hottest girl in school?
Leaving Paradise is a gentle romance which many students may enjoy. For me, Elkeles' writing and dialogue fell flat, and her adult characters were way over-the-top caricatures of "out-of-it parents". Also, the ending! What was up with the ending? If you can overlook the abrupt ending and the (IMHO) bad writing, you just may find paradise. 2 out of 4 Bananas.

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

No comments: