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Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles

I'll admit it up front--I've been cowardly avoiding reading Leaving Paradise. As you know, I devoured Simone Elkeles' Perfect Chemistry late last year and happily enjoyed the sequel Rules of Attraction a few months ago. But I deliberately stayed away from Elkeles' earlier novel because I had heard somewhere it left the reader feeling pretty raw and worked over and I guess I haven't been in the mood for such of late. But before I could decide one way or the other, I heard she was writing a sequel and, very uncharacteristically, I chose to wait until the sequel was out to read both books. No idea where I dug up that little dose of will power as it's generally in short supply around here. In any event, I managed to snag signed copies of both books at BEA and finally settled down to read Leaving Paradise on the plane ride home. A word on the cover. Originally published in 2007, this book has already had two covers and I actually really like both of them, thought the newer one pictured here certainly looks nicest next to my copies of both Perfect Chemistry novels.

Caleb Becker is on pins and needles awaiting the final verdict on whether or not, after a year in juvie, he'll be allowed his freedom once more. After being convicted for a hit and run accident while driving under the influence, seventeen-year-old Caleb has spent the last year locked up with other underage convicts. Never truly alone, his life has consisted of a never ending succession of humiliations, from strip searches to being watched while he performs even the most rudimentary acts of personal hygiene. Meanwhile, back home in Paradise, Illinois, another life was shattered by the events of that night. Maggie Armstrong never thought she'd be a cripple, that her days on the tennis court were numbered. But when Caleb crashed into her and then fled the scene of the crime, her small set of plans and expectations were permanently altered. In place of school and tennis practice, there was now physical therapy and a wheelchair. In place of laughter and fun with her best friend (Caleb's sister) Leah, there was now quiet fear and solitary dinners at the diner where her mother works to make ends meet. Despite everything that's gone down, she does harbor one last hope--to finish her physical therapy and go on study abroad to Spain for the duration of her senior year. And then Caleb gets his freedom and heads back home to Paradise. And, even with all the time that's passed, Maggie is still nowhere near ready to face everything his unwelcome reappearance in her life means.

I was caught unawares by this book. I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting, but Leaving Paradise was both quieter and more affecting a read than I planned on. The writing is characteristic of Ms. Elkeles' other books, with the narrative alternating points of view between Caleb and Maggie, full of the same straightforward, somewhat blunt dialogue tempered by a pair of quite sympathetic protagonists forcibly thrust into operating without their safety nets. Interestingly, as much as I adore Perfect Chemistry, I found this setup less inherently "cheesy." Maggie and Caleb are gentler, in many ways, than Alex and Brittany. Despite the crushing hand life's dealt them, they remain just above complete self-absorption. Their most brutal and biting judgments are reserved, in fact, for themselves--and each other, of course. And I'm a sucker for that sort of vibe. But perhaps most impressive to me was the breathless and delicate sense of pain and fear and barely there hope that pervades the whole. I was frankly engrossed in this very simple story of two hurt teenagers limping toward freedom. Here's one of my favorite scenes early on--a conversation between Caleb and his pen-clicking bruiser of a transition counselor Damon:
"It's my job to stay on you, Caleb. But I can't help if you won't share with me."

I look up at the sky and shake my head. "I don't need your help. My parents and sister . . . they need help more than me. Why don't you treat them like the guinea pig?"

"You've been away for almost a year. Give 'em a break. You act as though they should be apologizing to you instead of the other way around. What did they do wrong, huh? Maybe you should blame yourself once in a while, Caleb. The experience might be eye opening."

"The truth would be eye opening," I say back.

Click. Click. "What?"

I shake my head. "Nothing. Just forget it."

Damon opens his folder again. That folder probably tells Damon everything about my life before, during, and after my arrest. I wonder if the time I tee-peed Joe Sanders' house is in there. Or the time I beat up a guy from Fremont High for teasing my sister about her perm gone wrong. I used to be looked up to, the cool rebel. Now I'm a convict. Not cool.

He hands me a few sheets of paper. "You live in a small town, Caleb. Not much in choices for community service jobs, but on your questionnaire you said you had experience in construction and small home improvements."

"I worked construction during summers for my uncle," I tell him.

"Okay, then. You'll be required to check in at The Trusty Nail hardware store on Monday after school at three forty-five sharp. Don't be late. They'll assign you a job site and drop off all supply materials needed. When you're done with a job, get a completion sheet signed. Easy enough?"


"I just have a few more questions. Then you don't have to see my ugly mug for another week." What Damon looks up at me he asks, "Any physical contact?"

"As in sex?"

Damon shrugs. "I don't know, you tell me.Was the old girlfriend waiting on your front stoop when you got home yesterday?"

The urge to laugh gets caught in my throat. "Hardly. My sister hugged me, my dad shook my hand, and I got a few pats on the back from my mom's random friends last night."

"Did you initiate it?"

"No. You're creeping me out, man."

"Caleb, some guys have attachment problems when they get home. They have a hard time understanding what physical contact is appropriate and what--"

"I touched a girl," I say, interrupting.

Click. "Tell me about it."

I think back to last night, when Maggie tried to stand. The fierce pain she felt was emphasized by her clenched teeth, balled fists, and furrowed eyebrows. Since I've been home, Maggie has been the only person I've actually reached out to touch. It hadn't gone well.

"A girl needed help getting up, so I tried to steady her. End of story." Well, sort of.

"Did she thank you?"

I hesitate, then pick up a rock and chuck it all the way to the baseball field on the other side of the park. "She yanked herself out of my grasp. Isn't that what you want to hear?"

"If it's the truth."

I turn and give him a look. He knows I'm not fuckin' with him.

"Maybe you were too rough."

"I was not too rough," I say harshly.

"Who was she?"

I reach around and massage the persistent knot on the back of my neck. If I don't answer, Damon'll probably show up tomorrow and every day until I spill the beans. What's the big deal anyway? I glance at the old oak, half expecting to spot Maggie sitting there, her expression wary and angry.

I look over to Damon who's still waiting for an answer.

Then I finally say it. "I touched the girl who I went to jail for maiming."

Leaving Paradise is another winner from Simone Elkeles. I loved it. Would be honestly happy if it were all to end there. Even if the ending does leave things in a rather agonizing place. I can say that, of course, because I have an ARC of the sequel--Return to Paradise--in hand. Review to follow!

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  1. Great review! I loved 'Leaving Paradise'. It's definitely my favourite Elkeles book to date. I'm looking forward to seeing where she takes Caleb and Maggie in the sequel.

  2. Great review! I'm actually glad to hear this one is a little less "cheesy" than PC, although I loved PC. Looking forward to reading this one!

  3. I am devastated because of one thing.

    I was reading a blurb of this book at one blog where I actually inadvertently read the ending!

    Arrrrrgggggh!! I wanted to poke my eyes out. Why oh why!

    *sniffles* OK, Drama over. You think it is still a good read for the sunshine-butterflies-thriller-conspiracy theories-gooey romance-mystery reader like me?

  4. Anonymous12:57 PM

    Gosh, I loved this book. I bought the new cover edition when it came out just because I couldn't stand another edition of the book being out in the world but not on my shelf.

    I was going to ask what you read on the plane - I'm glad it was this one. I'm also glad you enjoyed it. I think the book deserved a better ending, but that's honestly my only complaint.

    I finished Return to Paradise yesterday. I was disappointed, but still hooked. It seemed rushed. I know it's an uncorrected proof, but the fact that Caleb is called Alex once turned me off and really hammered my suspicion home that Simone is focused on the other series. I considered putting it down until the finished version is published in September, but couldn't wait.

    I'm looking forward to your thoughts on it.


  5. Oh man, fantastic review. I need to get my hands on this book! Thanks for the review.

  6. Fabulous review. I really understand what you mean about this being a "quieter" book than Perfect Chemitsry. I really didn't know what to expect and i was shocked by how much I loved this book. I like that the characters are kind of understated in a way that makes them seem more real. I think the ending was perfect in a bittersweet way, and I didn't even know there was a sequel, I found the ending was just right, it was hard and delicate but it was what I expected from the characters. I'm interested to see where their story takes them, so i am really looking forward to your review.

  7. Sarah, my reaction to it really took me by surprise! Loved the two of them and the dynamic between them so much.

    Mollie, it is decidedly so. :) I hope you enjoy it.

    Brahmin, Nooooo! That's heinous and I'm so sorry. And, yes, I do think it's still a good read for sunshine-butterflies-thriller-conspiracy theories-gooey romance-mystery reader you. hehe.

    Karen, I was thinking about what you'd said about it the whole time! And I agree. Would have been happier with a different ending, but somehow it didn't ruin it for me at all. The scene when he comes into the house and she's cutting up lemons for lemonade....*happysigh*

    Unfortunately, I agree with all of your thoughts on the sequel. *nothappysigh*

    Rowena, my pleasure. It was seriously so lovely.

    Carla, it sounds like we had an almost identical experience reading it. :)They really did feel so real and honest and that is what won me over so thoroughly. Though I really was pulling for a happy ending...

  8. I got these books at BEA and read Leaving Paradise on the plane home as well. While I didn't like it as much as Perfect Chemistry (which is one of the best books I've read) it was really good. Like the comments above I actually thought a sequel wasn't necessary. This was one of the few books where I wouldn't have minded not getting the happy ending.

    I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who wonders if I should have waited for the actual release of the sequel instead of reading the ARC. This copy was a lot more rough than previous ARCs I've read (there were things like "reveals" happening more than once because the scene hadn't been edited down after it was changed around).

    By the way I actually met you at BEA in one of the Simone Elkeles lines (for Return to Paradise I think). Just thought I'd say.

    There's a chance I posted this twice if so sorry.

  9. Wow, this seems like an intense novel. I'm glad you posted a review. I've been wondering if it's any good because I've seen a copy of it in one of the bookstores here.

  10. I love Simone's books. She really hit her stride with these intense romances.

    Angie, do you read Jennifer Echolls? I think she might be right up your alley.

  11. I love Simone Elkeles! This is on my to read list.

  12. I hadn't even heard of this one, but I suppose since I haven't read the other books, that I just didn't know about them at all. I'll have to pick these up!

  13. I had been curious about her other novels actually - thanks for the review, it's now on the tbr list!

  14. Katy, I remember meeting you! Of course. :) And how fun we both read it on our rides home. I do agree with you. It doesn't technically *need* a sequel. I would have been happy playing it all out in my head the way I just know things would go. lol. I concur on the roughness of the RETURN TO PARADISE ARC. It was pretty distracting in parts.

    Chachic, if you've got access to a copy I'd go ahead and buy it. It's just great. Really. :)

    Diana, I agree. Something about her direct style appeals to me. And I have read GOING TOO FAR by Jennifer Echols. That's the only one. I liked it quite a lot and have been looking forward to the release of FORGET YOU, which everyone seems to think is even better. Are there others of hers I should try?

    Cari, if you already love her then this one is a sure winner. Hope you get to it soon.

    Becky, I do think these would be up your alley. Either this one or PERFECT CHEMISTRY would be great ones to start with, I think.

    Michelle, you will love Maggie and Caleb. I have no doubt of this. :)

  15. Angie! I love your review. I was holding off on buying and reading this one, too, because I also read quite a few reviews that indicated a unsatisfactory resolution and ending. But I TRUST YOU! So I'm going to read it. Plus... I ended up buying it for my daughter back in April for her birthday, so I even have it in the house already. LOL ;)

  16. I read this book before I read Perfect Chemistry and I am so glad I did. I felt this book to be much deeper, and not as "light" as Perfect Chemistry was (even though I still enjoyed it!). I'm a "Happy ending" kind of girl, so I was left feeling a little unsatisfied, but I also knew there was a sequel to it.. so I kept that in mind :-)

    Great review!

  17. Christine, phew. That's a lot of trust! ;) Just kidding. I think you'll love it. I really do.

    Ginger, that's fascinating and I wonder what my reaction would have been reading it before PC. I think I would have been just as wild over it. Though I probably would have absolutely languished over the

  18. I really loved this review! Leaving Paradise has been sitting on my wishlist for a while now but I keep managing to overlook it. I'll definitely have to rectify that before the sequel comes out.

  19. Jacqueline, I'm so glad. I did the same thing for quite awhile, obviously, and I'm really glad I finally read it. One of those happy surprises for sure.


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