Between The Lines: A Stereotypical Story Inside An Otherwise Tolerable Tale

I purchased Between the Lines because of a negative, one-star review:

I have read and enjoyed all of [Jodi] Picoult’s previous books. I realized that this one would be different since it was written with her daughter and meant to be a young adult novel; however, it was very different and the style was nothing like her other books…

As a person who has not finished a Jodi Picoult novel after two good faith attempts, ultimately refusing both times to allow her dreary plots to manipulate my emotions for too long, I welcomed the idea of a different kind of Jodi Picoult book, one co-authored by her teenage daughter, Samantha Van Leer.  I also love the idea of a mother and daughter working together on a creative project like this.  The novel is marketed as “Young Adult,” although it seems better suited for “tween” or pre-teens.

It is a story within a story: Delilah, a fifteen-year-old social outcast, fixates on a fairy tale she found in her school library. Having read it enough times to memorize the words, Delilah realizes that she can communicate with “Prince Charming,” with whom she is smitten.  Inside the book, he etches the words “Help me” into an illustrated cliff, prompting Delilah to risk her own sanity and her relationship with her mother and her best friend to have her “happily ever after” with this fictional character.

Prince Oliver, merely a renamed version of the stock character Prince Charming, is stuck in a fairy tale without free will.  He has no choice but to play the role the author created for him whenever the book opens, with short reprieves when the book is closed, at which point he can be himself.  He and Delilah spend 370 pages figuring out how to liberate him from his deterministic prison.

The chapters are told from different perspectives, either Oliver’s or Delilah’s, sometimes within the fairy tale and sometimes outside of it.  The chapters devoted to the fairy tale (with the characters playing their fairy tale roles) are boring, with too many sentences beginning with “Then” in quick succession to create the illusion of action. (See the chapter titled “Page 40” for examples).  The chapters focused on plot developments outside of the fairy tale script are far more interesting.

The fairy tale itself is frustratingly stereotypical, and it is hard to believe that its fictional author, named Jessamyn Jacobs, is a woman born in 1965 and not one of the Brothers Grimm, known for putting their patriarchal spin on folk tales during the 19th Century.  The characters in Jacobs’ fairy tale are all either helpless and beautiful women, brave and/or intelligent men, or hostile supernatural females, like nasty fairies and cunning mermaids. Of course, the end goal is for the prince to get together with his princess.  In this gendered world, Prince Oliver adopts certain views about gender roles, such as the idea that art classes are for “princesses.”  Oddly, Delilah finds this antiquated fairy tale compelling enough to read it ad nauseum, falling in love with the prince largely, but not entirely,* because “Oliver is cuter than any guy in [her] school,” even though “he is two-dimensional and illustrated.”

Thankfully, when the book is closed, the fairy tale characters lose their one-dimensionality, and Delilah counters some of Oliver’s stereotypical views and asserts that they are equals.  However, despite these nods towards more progressive attitudes, several issues remain, including stereotypes and plot weaknesses that probably bother me more as an adult woman than they would bother the book’s intended younger audience, a group more receptive to make-believe:

  • I take slight offense to Delilah’s conclusion that the mermaids are “hard core feminists” because they strongly dislike men (when the book is closed), thus promoting the childish misconception of feminists as man-haters for comedic effect.  Maybe it’s just that I don’t have a sense of humor (ha), another stereotype about feminists.
  • How easily Delilah forgives Oliver is irritating.  She forgives him before he apologizes for his rash, self-centered behavior that dramatically alters Delilah’s life.  Her change of heart happens quickly, because she is “moony-eyed,” with the novel providing little meaningful explanation for her almost immediate forgiveness.  Then again, maybe I have long forgotten what it felt like to be a “love struck” teenager, when it’s possible that boys could have gotten away with much more than my husband can today.
  • As a mom of identical twins, who look entirely different to me, it irritated me that Delilah confused a fictional character with his real-life doppelganger.  First, her attraction to the prince is largely physical, and second, how can she be in love if she can’t even tell him apart from someone else?  This novel is most appropriate for very young readers, who might think this case of mistaken identity is believable, but I know that my twins would not appreciate it.
  • Finally, as a mother, the “switch” at the end — I won’t tell you who — pained me. I don’t think any parent would accept a lookalike taking the place of their child.

In the end, I applaud Delilah for concluding that she wants Oliver in her life on her own terms (ideally, it would be mutual terms), but we cannot escape the fact that the book essentially boils down to a story about a girl risking everything for a guy she barely knows apart from his looks, as though a handsome teenage boy can solve all of her problems.  The sad part is that this tale would have been less satisfying if Delilah and Oliver had not ended up together (this isn’t a spoiler: we all know it’s going to happen).  Deep down, many readers want the characters in their books to live “happily ever after,” myself included.  Picoult’s depressing plots, usually without happy endings based on the spoilers I’ve read, are part of why I find her work so unpalatable, though I’m apparently in the minority, as her numerous bestselling works are well-regarded by virtually everyone else.  Unlike Picoult’s other works, this one, co-authored with Van Leer, is tolerable, even entertaining at points, but I would have preferred a more nuanced look at young relationships, ones built on something more than instant physical attraction, ones that don’t require the young girl to risk her sanity for a boy.

Perhaps I take young adult/adolescent books far too seriously, but I think the marketing towards a younger audience makes the themes more deserving of scrutiny. Children read these books at an impressionable age, when stereotypical notions about men, women, and romantic relationships are most likely to have an effect on them (coloring their view of how they should act and of what they should expect from relationships).  In the future, my own daughters may decide to read this book, at which point I would hope to have a meaningful discussion with them about the ways in which Delilah is both a strong and weak female protagonist.  Of course, by that time, my kids probably won’t want to have that type of discussion with their mother!

*The other reason Delilah is drawn to Oliver is illusory.

16 thoughts on “Between The Lines: A Stereotypical Story Inside An Otherwise Tolerable Tale

  1. This is a great, thorough review!
    I agree about the story being more middle grade-esqe than YA. It is very entertaining, but it definitely requires some suspension of reality. The biggest issue for me, though, was how stereotyped everything was, and I too was a little put off by the feminist comment.
    Van Leer definitely has potential as an author, but she has a lot to learn. I think she would have benefitted from having to try a few timed before getting published, which probably would have happened if her mother wasn’t an established author who could slap her name on the book.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Somehow, I missed it until now. I agree with you about Van Leer; she has potential. Her writing lacks a maturity that I think even middle grade fiction deserves (though this type of simplicity, such as the stereotyping, might be the standard in MG. If it is, it shouldn’t be). This book is not young adult, and should never have been marketed as such.

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  5. I too believe there should be some sort of happiness at the end of a story. I also agree that portraying a feminist perspective needs to be a balance of an independent female character while allowing independent male characters to still be men. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of “hostile supernatural females, like nasty fairies and cunning mermaids,” while having the polar opposite. This is an interesting review, and has given me a lot to think about.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m disappointed that the fairy tale in the novel is so awful. I suppose that was part of the point–that the characters aren’t really as one-dimensional as the roles they play in the fairy tale when the book is closed. But how could an intelligent fifteen-year-old girl identify with that vile story? Picoult and Van Leer tried to address some of the stereotypical issues in the novel, but it fell flat.

  6. Great review. I am usually wary of YA books by well-established adult authors because I get the impression that they are often published because of the author’s fame, not because they are quality books. I too am intrigued by the mother-daughter dynamic. I definitely intend to read this at some point, but it’s not very high on my list right now.

    1. I agree. This book is co-authored, but Picoult’s name is much bigger than Van Leer’s name on the cover, and it was clearly marketed for Picoult’s readers. I’m sure many would buy (and have bought) the book, but I doubt many would like it (as the negative review I quoted suggests). It’s just so different from her typical books, and she’s not really a YA author. Just because someone writes popular contemporary fiction doesn’t make them equally capable of writing high quality YA or any other genre. In “Between The Lines,” Jessamyn Jacobs wrote popular mystery novels before she wrote that dreadful fairy tale. Apparently, it was not a rewarding enough experience for Jacobs to write another. I wonder if Picoult will be the same way. Will we see another deviation from her typical genre or will she go back to more of the same? I’m curious to know what her daughter’s next project will be. It’s possible that she’ll stay in the YA genre and eventually grow into a reputable author in her own right.

    1. I’m glad to know I’m not alone! I don’t understand how people endure her books, but clearly her stories of emotional anguish appeal to readers or else she wouldn’t have sold millions of copies. I own two that I never finished. Sometimes I think I’ll crack them open and give them another try, but then I realize that life is too short to fill it with such depressing material.

  7. wooww!! you have given a very detailed review.. I myself have read 1 novel by this author called “change of heart” and although i finished it i didnt enjoy it that much. But this one does sound different from her other books. Thanks for the review. Do check out my blog when you can.. 🙂
    http://abisview.wordpress.com/

    1. I didn’t try “Change of Heart,” and I doubt I will after having unsuccessful attempts to read “Harvesting the Heart” and “My Sister’s Keeper.” There’s no denying that Picoult is a very popular and talented writer, but no one’s work will appeal to everyone, and her work definitely does not appeal to me. I’ll be sure to check out your blog. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. My daughter was a voracious reader, and, of course, she refused to take my suggestions for what to read, and I can’t remember that we had many good discussions about books. Odd, huh? The child – parent relationship is a tricky one; perhaps I should have pushed harder to talk, but I was always being so careful not to be intrusive!

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