For most people, a year in Paris — art, wine, romance — sounds like a dream. For Anna Oliphant, it's a nightmare. Because Anna (the heroine of debut novel Anna and the French Kiss by local author Stephanie Perkins) is being forced by her image-obsessed, nouveau-riche dad to spend her senior year abroad at the prestigious School of America in Paris. Even though that means missing her best friend, prom, a job at the movie theater and Toph — the boy who just might like her back.
That's right, Anna is about boys. And (in case the title doesn't give it away) kissing. But it's also about friendship and becoming one’s self, and the simultaneous terror and thrill of adventure. Anna is a young adult book — but, full of poignant moments, raw emotion, clever characters and engaging plot, it's a far cry from the Sweet Valley High books of the past YA generation. "I was afraid it would be the hot pink cover with a curlicue Eiffel Tower and a lipstick kiss," Perkins says of the book's visage. (It’s not.)
Perkins knows books. Before becoming a full-time author, she worked as a book seller and a librarian. Both professions helped with researching Anna, which Perkins set in Paris despite having only visited the city briefly as a preteen. The story came to her in a dream — "I saw a beautiful boy sitting on the steps of the Pantheon and looking across the plaza at him, I knew in that moment I was in love with him." The dream boy came to life in Anna as the charming Étienne St. Clair. Love interest in place, Perkins filled in the details of Paris' streetlife, architecture and culture.
"I picked a big enough place where I had books, music and films where I could experience it elsewhere. I tried to be as thorough as I could. I was pulling from children's picture books, cook books, history and fiction," she says. "Just about anything can be accomplished with really good research." But, where movies, travel books and Google Earth could flesh out the setting, tapping into the angst and drama of teen life was pure memory.
"I met my husband when I was a teenager, so that's one of the reasons I believe true love is possible as a teenager,” says Perkins. “I remember all of those feelings I had when I met him and how strong they were." She telegraphs that adrenaline and woozy uncertainty into Anna, in passages like, "I love it when he cocks an eyebrow whenever I say something he finds clever or amusing. … I love that the accent over his first name is called an acute accent, and that he has a cute accent." And, "One of his legs rests against mine. Despite the two layers of pants between us, I feel naked and vulnerable."
"I think that's the most fun thing about writing young adult," says Perkins. "It's there in the name: Adult. But because they're young, it's a lot of firsts and the firsts are always exciting." For Anna, it’s the first taste of a panini, first time spending a holiday away from her family, first time getting drunk.
In some ways, the characters in Anna are the good-influence friends any parent would wish for their teens. Multi-lingual, college-bound and responsible. But Anna also touches on some mature themes: Bad relationships, sex and drinking.
"Young adult has changed so much in the last few years," says Perkins. "The biggest difference between young adult and adult literature is simply that the protagonist is a teenager." That means a book's squeaky cleanness or edginess is up to the author.
"For me, what I have portrayed was like me and my friends," says Perkins. "Some people will take offense and some will be fine with it. But it is a little nerve wracking writing for teenagers because for some readers, this will be the first time they'll be exposed to some things."
Ultimately, "I just wrote the book that I would want to read." As such, adult fans of romantic fiction are likely to enjoy Anna’s adventures (kissing and otherwise), too.
Plus, the story isn't over with the last page of the book. Two more titles — Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After are forthcoming. For the latter, Perkins recently spent a month in France for what she calls "location scouting."
"It's such a rich, diverse and cool city that I wanted to make sure I had new stuff in the [new] book. Jarrod and I would be walking around and I'd gasp," she says of wandering Paris with her husband. "He'd look and me and go, 'Oh, you're going to have someone make out there, aren't you?'"
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Stephanie Perkins
what: Book launch (with French pastries from The Sisters McMullen!) of Anna and the French Kiss
when: Thursday, Dec. 2 (7 p.m., free. malaprops.com)