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.