Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles (*with slight spoilers*)
Leaving Paradise is one of those books that makes me glad we don’t give grades here, just opinions. Because I’m not sure how I’d grade it. It’s flawed but readable, engaging but exasperating, and left me with very mixed emotions.
Caleb Becker has spent the last year in a juvenile detention facility after he “was convicted of hitting a girl with my car while driving drunk.” Maggie Armstrong has spent the last year trying to recover from the injuries she incurred when Caleb hit her. Both end up working for the same person, Mrs. Reynolds, Maggie doing odd jobs in the hopes of earning enough money to spend a semester abroad, Caleb as part of his community service. Although she would prefer ignoring him, Maggie is still drawn to Caleb, finding him the only one who can understand her isolation.
Elkeles alternates points of view, with Caleb and Maggie taking turns narrating chapters, but Caleb’s voice never rang true. Maggie’s did, but when half the book is told by a character whose chapters kept pulling me out of the story, asking myself what kind of teenage boy talks—to other people, not just internally—like that, well… I’m not exactly sure how Elkeles kept me reading. There were also too many coincidences for my liking. Caleb and Maggie happen to live next door to each other, and his twin sister just happens to have been Maggie’s (pre-accident) best friend. Maggie’s mother works as a waitress in a diner. Mrs. Reynolds is the mother of the diner’s owner, and just happens to have an unfinished gazebo in her yard, and lucky for her, Caleb spent a couple of summers doing construction, and building her gazebo happens to qualify as community service.
Despite all this, Elkeles convincingly conveys Maggie’s turmoil and Caleb’s frustration with peoples’ perception of him. I was emotionally invested in the story and characters, which is why my biggest problem with Leaving Paradise is the ending. If Elkeles hadn’t made me care about Caleb and Maggie, I wouldn’t have cared about what happened to them. But I did, and that’s why I absolutely hated the ending.
Or, to be more precise, I hated some of the events that led to the ending. I think I’d be okay with the way Leaving Paradise ultimately ends if some of those proximate things hadn’t happened and if the big secret hadn’t existed. Because they just made me feel manipulated, that some of the events leading up to the climax were unnecessary and a total cop-out. In other words, what bothers me is not so much the not-happy ending as *how* it comes about. But apparently I’m in the minority here, because reader reviews at Amazon and Barnes & Noble are very positive. This book is a Cybil’s nominee, and I am definitely looking forward to seeing what my fellow panelists have to say about this title.