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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

'Isla and the Happily Ever After' by Stephanie Perkins

From the BLURB:

From the glittering streets of Manhattan to the moonlit rooftops of Paris, falling in love is easy for hopeless dreamer Isla and introspective artist Josh. But as they begin their senior year in France, Isla and Josh are quickly forced to confront the heartbreaking reality that happily-ever-afters aren’t always forever.

Their romantic journey is skillfully intertwined with those of beloved couples Anna and Étienne and Lola and Cricket, whose paths are destined to collide in a sweeping finale certain to please fans old and new.

Isla has been in love with Josh Wasserstein for most of her high school life – though it takes a trip to the dentist and heavy medication for her to get up the nerve to have an actual conversation with him.

That conversation takes place at Kismet, a café around the corner from their respective New York apartments – and the fate aspect of that is not lost on Isla. You see, she and Josh actually attend the America School in Paris, so she has plenty of opportunities throughout the year to talk with him (and, actually he once commented on their mutual love of Joann Sfar – so there was that, their most significant exchange … until now). While still slightly high on dentist meds, Isla strikes up a conversation with Josh when she spies him at her favourite café drawing in his ever-present sketchbook, and because it’s Josh (!) and she’s feeling brave she can’t help but flirt with him … and be mortified the following morning when she remembers snapshots of their exchange.

Her best friend, Kurt, assures Isla it couldn’t have been so bad. But she’s not so sure Kurt really understands – partly because he’s on the autism spectrum and has a hard time reading people’s emotions – and partly because he’s borne witness to all the insignificant exchanges between her and Josh over the years (as Kurt also attends the America School) but he wasn’t there to properly catalogue the Kismet event.

Sure enough, when School’s back for the year Isla feels her connection to Josh has strengthened (and that fate is still playing a part, when she finds herself assigned to Josh’s old room from last year).

Something is happening between her and her crush-from-afar, Josh Wasserstein – they have a connection, and as they both start building on their Kismet encounter, the more she’s convinced that Josh can feel it too.

‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ is the third and final book in Stephanie Perkins’s romance YA series that started with ‘Anna and the French Kiss’, continued with ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ and will finally end with Isla and Josh’s story.

I was really nervous to read this book. ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ came out in 2011, a year after ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ … but ‘Isla’, although announced as the third and final book around the same time that ‘Lola’ came out, took three years to get here. Stephanie Perkins has been very open and honest about how hard this book was to write and explained the hold-up (which sounded like a combination of all the worst things that can happen to an author – writers block, lack of confidence and sheer exhaustion). Perkins also teased fans that this book would not be all smooth sailing for Isla … and that warning, coupled with the knowledge that this was her hardest book to write, was a little nerve-racking as a reader and fan. I didn’t know how Perkin’s creative struggle would translate to the finale of one of my favourite contemporary YA series…. But I can say, with hand over my heart, that Stephanie Perkins has done it. She has given fans the most wonderful of endings to this series.

It took me a while to get into this book, however. Probably down to a few niggling reader-worries going in, but I found myself starting to read ‘Isla’ and then putting it down … picking it up for a few pages, and then putting it down. I wasn’t getting hooked, initially, but once the story took us back to Paris (and the original setting of ‘Anna and the French Kiss’) I stayed glued to that page.

So, the book begins with Isla having her ‘Kismet’ moment with Josh (while high on meds, admittedly) – fans will recognise Isla as the few years younger pupil at the America School who Anna figured out was crushing on Josh, one of the boys in her group of friends. For the reason that Isla stretches back to the first book, it’s easy to fall into sympathy with her one-sided crush on the beautiful Josh Wasserstein (son of a senator, artist- extraordinaire and bad-boy of the America School who is always on his third and final warning);  

The next few days are unsettling. 
Josh is aware of me. 
Whenever he enters a room, an unmistakable mass of chaotic energy enters with him. It rattles the air between us. It buzzes and hums. And every time we surrender – every time our eyes meet in a flash of nerve – a shock wave jolts throughout my entire system. I feel frayed. Excited. Unravelled.
I both really loved the melodrama of ‘Isla’, and sometimes it bugged me (but only slightly). Look, a lot of the appeal of YA lies in the fact that it’s all about firsts – and the heightened emotions surrounding them. But so much of ‘Isla’ is about falling hard and fast – I mean, it’s like a piano falling on both Josh and Isla’s heads. And I loved that, I really did – but at one point Josh shows Isla a panel from his graphic novel memoir and he’s included a drawing of the two of them, and the thought-bubble ‘salvation!’ above his head. Moments like that made me chuckle, and I don’t think that was the intended reaction.

But I did love Josh and Isla. They feel like a couple straight out of a Cameron Crowe movie (I’m looking at you, Lloyd Dobbler!) they’re this perfect combination of sweet and heat – and, speaking of, Stephanie Perkins writes a seriously good sex scene that’s commendable for being about female satisfaction, without venturing into inappropriate smut. It was refreshing to read something so frank in contemporary YA.

My confession leaves him stunned. 
“There’s no story,” I say. “I saw you one day, and I just knew.”Josh stares at me. He looks inside of me. And then he kisses me with more passion than he’s ever kissed me with before.

I also really liked Isla's friendship with Kurt - who is on the autism spectrum (what was once called Asperger syndrome), though I did think they had a lot of problems with their friendship towards the end of the book that I don't feel were given proper page time. The Kurt/Isla friendship also had echoes of Sibylla and Michael's friendship (perhaps minus romantic undertones) from Fiona Wood's marvellous 'Wildlife', but I think Wood handled that friendship better than Perkins did in the end.

While I was worried that Stephanie Perkins’ struggles with writing this book would show through in the final product, I was actually surprised at how it helped shape Isla’s story. Anna and Lola’s romantic struggles were a mix of physical and emotional struggles – Anna had Etienne’s girlfriend to contend with, Lola had her current boyfriend at the time, and a long history with the Bell’s as her roadblocks. A lot of Isla’s struggles in coming together with Josh are internal, they’re her own hang-ups that she needs to conquer (though she tries to make out physical obstacles as her excuse, readers know better). I feel like that’s a reflection of what sounded like Perkins’ internal struggles to write this book (like her lacking self-confidence). Then there’s the moment when Isla offers some harsh editing critiques of Josh’s very personal graphic memoir – I feel like that was a little author moment creeping in, commenting on how hard (but necessary) it is to hear those criticisms. I really liked that Isla’s hang-ups were about her confidence, and overcoming something in herself – that was so interesting and relatable to me.

I also loved that we’re back in Europe with this book. I liked the San Francisco setting in ‘Lola’, but a lot of the fun in ‘Anna’ came from the Paris setting. This time we’re back at the America School in Paris, but there’s also a jaunt to Barcelona that I absolutely adored because I’VE BEEN THERE! and it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I particularly liked the description of Antoni Gaudí’s Catalan modernist architecture (which is like something out of a dream) and cathedral Sagrada Família:

It’s a monster. 
It wants me to cower. It wants me to weep. It wants me to save my soul from hell. Gaudí started work on this church in the late nineteenth century, but it won’t be finished for at least another decade. It stretches twice as high as the tallest cathedrals of France. It looks like a fantasyland castle – wet sand dripped through fingers, both sharp and soft. Bright construction lights are everywhere, and workers are tinkering around its massive spires in dangerously tall cranes.


‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ is the finale fans were hoping for. Isla and Josh are the perfect way to finish this series, and fans will absolutely squeal in delight when we get to catch up with Lola and Cricket, but especially Anna and Etienne.


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