Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer

between the lines by jodi picoult and samantha van leer Publication year: 2012
Genre: YA fantasy
Time and place: contemporary US + the world between the pages of a book
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence:Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a brave king and a beautiful queen, who were so much in love that wherever they went, people stopped what they were doing just to watch them pass.
Verdict: Liked it, but it did not live up to my expectations.

Once upon a time there was a prince in a fairytale. He was smart and loyal and not very brave. And he was merely playing a part.

For as long as he can remember, Oliver has been forced to act out someone else’s words each time someone opens the book he lives in. However, when the book is closed, he and everyone else in the kingdom is free to enjoy themselves as they please and according to their own temperament. Oliver feels the pull of the “otherworld”, the place where the readers live in, a place where all the choices will forever be his own. But… how is he to ever get out there?

Enter Delilah. A fifteen years old loner, the only things she finds solace in are stories with a happy ending in general, and Oliver’s story in particular. She’s read the latter so many times that she knows everything in it by heart — which is why she’s quick to notice that one day one of the illustrations has subtly changed. This leads to her actually communicating with Oliver, and she promises to help him with his seemingly impossible quest. And still the question remains… how?

General impression
A very promising idea :) The fact that the book was co-written by an acclaimed writer and her daughter also made me quite curious — Jodi Picoult is able to write compellingly about complex characters and issues, and I was very looking forward to see this ability of hers translated in a fairy tale world. In this case however, she seems to have let her daughter take the lead: while the story has its charm, the very complexity that I was expecting and looking forward to enjoying is lacking. I have seen reviews written by young adults (the very target age) and they too were complaining that the book is too simplistic, and would have been better off marketed to an even younger audience.

In the end, it’s probably a matter of my expectations being too high. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all, of course, because I definitely did.

Growing up without a father and with a mother struggling to make ends meet, Delilah feels the need to escape her own life now and then. She is very unpopular in school since she accidentally broke a cheerleader’s knee, and has almost no friends at all. One of the few pleasures she has in her life is losing herself in a story and being able to believe in a happy ending. If we add to that the fact that the story-Oliver has grown up without a father too, it is no wonder that Delilah spends so much time reading and re-reading that particular tale. Sadly, there is not much more to her than that. We know that she is quite resourceful and she doesn’t give up easily, despite hitting all sorts of roadblocks on the way. I liked that about her, of course, but she still felt like a blank canvas with no depth at times. I would have loved to see her be a teensy tiny bit more complex, perhaps.

Oliver is even more of a mystery. While his in-story persona is described in a fair amount of detail1, he insists that this is not who he actually is, that Oliver is just a part. To me however the line between the two was sort of blurred — I thought that the real Oliver too was smart and loyal and while he may be brave he lacks an opportunity to prove it. And then he insists that he’s nothing like the other Oliver and this sort of confused me to no end, because if we subtract the story Oliver’s traits from the real Oliver’s list of traits that I could see there would be very little to nothing left.

Anyway, I found the idea that the characters in books are nothing like their story counterparts quite original and interesting2. As Oliver explains:

When we’re not acting our parts, we’re all just free to go about our business. It’s quite complicated, really. I’m Prince Oliver, but I’m not Prince Oliver. When the book is closed, I can stop pretending that I’m interested in Seraphima or that I’m fighting a dragon, and instead I can hang out with Frump or taste the concoctions Queen Maureen likes to dream up in the kitchen or take a dip in the ocean with the pirates, who are actually quite nice fellows. In other words, we all have lives outside the lives that we play when a Reader opens the book.

And there is more: the villain of the story is actually a butterfly collector, Oliver’s trusty steed has self esteem issues and the marriage-crazy mermaids are in fact quite jaded about love. At least the wizard is still interested in magic experiments :) I liked all of this, and I would have liked to see it played with a bit more; as it is, this felt mostly relegated to the background, and I was sort of sad to see it so.

Since Oliver and Delilah are about the same age, it came as no surprise to me that they sort of fell in love with one another. It did came as a bit of a disappointment though, because in the context it felt like their feelings were born out of desperation rather than a mutual liking for one another. I may be wrong, of course, but look at it this way: Oliver is obsessed with the world outside his book — is it any wonder that he falls for the first girl he sees in that world? Not to mention the only girl available to him other than Seraphima, whom he despises because he finds her delusional and dumb as a brick. On the other hand, Delilah is obsessed with that particular fairy tale — is it any wonder that she falls for the main character, who’s also the one boy that has paid any attention to her in quite a while? Which is why the love story bit fell sort of flat for me. I wasn’t emotionally invested in it almost at all. Although I do agree that a love story was sort of expected to happen under the circumstances :)

The plot was a linear and a very simple one: throughout the book Delilah and Oliver try one way after another to release the latter from his book. However, while that’s all that there is to it, I have to admit that it did manage to keep me interested :) It was quite cool to see them coming up with all sorts of ideas and then, when those didn’t work, coming up with new ones. I definitely liked that; I would have liked it even more though if the reasons why some things did not work would have been more expanded upon, instead of just having to accept that it is so. Ah well, nothing is perfect.

What I liked most
The way the things taken out from the book reverted to words (e.g. the pearl necklace turned into the word “pearl” written over and over again on Delilah’s neck). I think it was an original and a nice touch.

Also, I liked the way the book’s opening is sort of like a window to our world. The characters can and do see not only the reader’s face looming huge over the horizon, but also the things around him or her (which is how Oliver gets to learn a few bits and pieces about our world).

Ah, and another small detail that I thought was sort of cute, albeit insufficiently explored: Delilah’s mother hears her repeatedly talking to the book and actually takes her to see a psychiatrist. While in many fantasy books the main characters wonder about the probability of imagining things and/or what would other people think if they only knew, I liked how this book went a bit further and actually made it happen. Sure, there is no actual consequence3, but it was a novel and somewhat unexpected detail nevertheless.

Last but not least, one of my favorite fantasy tropes is having the prince be in need of saving, and someone else (usually the female character, which makes it even better) be the one doing the saving. In this book Oliver is the trapped one, and as such he can only be “saved” by someone else — whereas Delilah, far from being a damsel in distress, does her utmost to make his dream come true. I couldn’t not like that :)

What I liked least
While the book is/feels a tad simplistic at times, and some things are needing more suspension of disbelief than others, there is only one element that has really bothered me: it’s been specified more than once that the book characters can only act out the story when the book is open, they can do nothing else — and yet Oliver is able to freely interact with Delilah after they make that first contact. It’s like something in the world building doesn’t make sense. Also, why is Delilah the only one who can hear Oliver4 ? I kept feeling like there was something, some rule, some explanation that I am missing, and this kept pulling me out of the story.

Thoughts on the title
A great title and probably the best one for this book. This being said, the fact that the story of Oliver was also named Between the Lines felt a bit forced, considering that there is nothing remotely related to any lines, literal of figurative, in there (show spoiler


Thoughts on the ending
The ending felt somewhat incomplete (or maybe I was missing something?), as we are not told exactly how Oliver manages to get out of the book. After spending all those pages trying to find the solution to a problem, it’s rather unsatisfactory to have it solved “just like that”, without the actual solution being given.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
YA fantasy lovers with low expectations. It’s a fun book, but one of the authors was a teenager at the time of writing and sometimes it shows.

Buy this from | Buy this from | Jodi Picoult’s website | Jodi Picoult on Twitter

Other books written by Jodi Picoult:
Mercy | My Sister’s Keeper

If you liked this you may like:

  1. my favorite bit: “Oliver was smart and loyal, but he was a complete disappointment when it came to bravery. In an effort to make his mother happy, Oliver overcompensated, spending his teenage years trying to do everything else right“. []
  2. although to be fair I’d rather believe that a happy ever after is “real”, and the characters in books really are who I think they are even after the book closes []
  3. if we don’t count that the psychiatrist will probably end up being Delilah’s step dad []
  4. I know that in the book he — very annoyingly — refuses to speak when anyone else is around, but he says that he has tried contacting others before and to no avail. While I can fully get the idea that people only see what they expect to see, I have trouble believing that a reader, any reader, could have missed a radical change like for example his writing stuff on walls. []

Mercy / Jodi Picoult

Genre: Drama
Main characters: Cameron “Cam” MacDonald, Allie MacDonald, Jamie MacDonald
Time and place: 1995, Wheelock, Massachusetts
First sentence: When she had packed all the artifacts that made up their personal history into liquor boxes, the house became strictly a feminine place.

Summary: The quiet life of the small city of Wheelock is shattered one day when a man drives up to the chief of police and says “My wife here, Maggie, is dead. And I’m the one who killed her.”. The chief, Cameron MacDonald, had no choice but to arrest him and charge him with Murder One. And yet, things aren’t exactly what they seem — and the trial to follow will change the lives of everyone involved. In the end, this is a story of love, the things people do for it, and, of course, mercy.

I very much liked the way the author had set up backstories for each of the main characters, to help the reader understand them better. From this point of view my favorite just had to be Allie, whose story was not only the most detailed one but also had the most laudable feelings, her devotion to her husband Cam shining from one end to another. At the opposite end of the palette is Cam himself, who we know quite little about (he travelled, he dreams to travel again, he accepted his duty to his clan) and are given very few reasons to actually like. We may of course understand him at times, condemn him at others, but I don’t think there was a reason for me to actually like him. If anything I rather disliked him a bit for the way he took his wife’s affection for him for granted. There were a few additional characters I have found very colorful and as such I have to mention them here: Ellen, Cam’s mother, widowed and newly in touch with her spiritual side, and Angus, Cam’s uncle, who has lived the most part of his life in Scotland and who sometimes finds himself in the mind of an ancestor of his (usually while he is fighting at Culloden Moor).

Speaking of which, I am not very certain of how I feel about all the Scottish elements the author has added to the story. I was surprised, of course, to see the battle scenes at Culloden, and I also liked the way their shared past unified the people of Wheelock (all their ancestors having come there, in the 18th century, from the very same place). And yet I don’t find it very believable that, quite a few generations after leaving Scotland, the people there are still in need of a laird to nominally protect them, or that they still refer to non-Scots as Sassenachs. I cannot imagine a teenager of today for example, being so bent on respecting such old and faraway customs. But anyway, believable or not, and likeable to me or not, I have to admit it was quite an original touch. :)

I liked the fact that the author has attacked quite a controversial issue, namely euthanasia. What I wasn’t that fond of, and sort of missed throughout the book, was the presentation of more than one point of view. I mean, not only it can be clearly seen on what side of the argument the author is, she never actually bothered to even hint at the other side. Sure, it can be argued that we had the whole trial and both prosecution and defense have presented their considerations on the matter, but in my eyes they discussed quite another matter (“is euthanasia Murder One” rather than “can euthanasia be justified” — I don’t know what better way to say this, I know that at first sight they seem to be the same but I found them to be different). Perhaps what I am missing is the feeling I got when I read another book of the author’s, where both sides of the matter discussed there were so well represented I was actually torn apart between them and couldn’t decide who I thought was right. Sure, I started reading this book while already having a strong opinion towards the matter discussed, and yet I very much missed the battle of ideas I was expecting to find.

A quote I liked:

What else had they promised each other? She remembered Cam looking down at her, his voice steady and firm as it fell around her shoulders like a protective cap. With all that I have, and all that I am, I thee endow.
She had said the same words to him. Had they been true, they should have traded bits and pieces of their selves the same way they had shared blood: Cam might have taken her calmness, she might have inherited his quick temper; and so on, swapping emotions and attributes until they were no longer opposites but two of a kind.

What I liked most: The way the author did show nuances at times. For example, Jamie killed his wife because she asked him to. That’s the obvious reason, he loved her so much he honored her request. But there is also a less obvious reason, one that Jamie almost didn’t acknowledge himself: somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, a part of him was hoping that by killing the sick Maggie, the Maggie that now was, he would somehow get back the healthy Maggie, the Maggie that used to be. Sure it’s not a very reasonable thing to expect, but the mind works in mysterious ways, and the fact that it didn’t happen (doh) only made it more difficult for Jamie to live on.

I also liked the subtle hint that show spoiler

What I liked least: I didn’t very much get the connection between Allie and Jamie. While I can understand the reason why she first paid him a visit, I don’t find that plausible the fact that a short while later they ended up inseparable, despite Allie’s husband disapproving of their friendship. What did Jamie have to offer Allie anyway, why did she keep hanging around him at first?

Recommend it to? Everyone who enjoys reading about controversial topics :)

Written by the same author:
Between the Lines (with Samantha van Leer)
My Sister’s Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper / Jodi Picoult

Genre: Drama
Main characters: Andromeda “Anna” Fitzgerald, Kate Fitzgerald, Campbell Alexander
Time and place: ’90s and ’00s, US
Summary: Kate Fitzgerald got sick with an aggressive form of leukemia when she was two. The doctors gave her few years to live at the very most, depending on whether or not they’ll find a matching donor to supply her with the blood cells she needs. Out of sheer desperation, her parents went to doctors and had another baby, genetically engineered to match Kate, and thus Anna was born. Years have passed with Anna having to go through various invasive surgeries, donating platelets, blood and bone marrow to her sister, often having to put her life on hold so that she was always around in case Kate needed anything. Now, thirteen years old and having to donate a kidney to her sister, Anna has decided she’s had enough so she goes to a lawyer and asks him to sue her parents in order to force them to let her make her own medical decisions from then on.

The characters were all imperfect and likable for this very reason. Sara, whose world revolved around her sick child, ignoring the other two because there’s only so many hours in a day and only so many thoughts in a man’s head at a time (I am not saying, of course, that ignoring your children is a good thing but the circumstances do excuse some of her behaviour). Brian, the hero fireman and the head of an unhappy family, with his own demons and his love for astronomy. Jesse, the older brother turned delinquent out of a desperate hope that this is the way to be noticed by others. Campbell Alexander, the lawyer, with his frail health and his haunted past. Julia, Anna’s guardian appointed by the court, with her lonely life and memories of a time with pink hair and self-sufficiency. Kate, the teenager with a life spent mostly in hospitals. And Anna, disconcerted, torn between opposing feelings, the love for her family, her mother and sister, but also dreaming of a time when she’d be able to go any place and follow any path she chooses.

I have loved (and been very impressed by) the fact that the story in the book is so complex it’s practically impossible to take sides, as the reader can relate to any of the characters in the book, understanding their faults and the choices that made them become the people they are. There is no set answer to the situation the characters are in, no black and white, no definite right and wrong. Anna feels she has the right to be selfish after 13 years of altruism, and can anyone blame her? Can anyone deny her the right to a life of her own? Of course not, but neither can anyone condemn Kate to death (because that is precisely what denying her the kidney would mean for her). Practically a lose-lose situation for little Anna, and the reader is drawn in hoping for an ending that’ll hurt her (and her family) the least.

Everything would have been a lot easier if at least one of the parties involved was uncaring, mean or had bad intentions. All the fingers would have pointed towards that character, problem solved. Only it’s not like that. Sure, Sara, the girls’ mother, doesn’t seem, most of the times, to care about all her children, because Kate (the needy one, the dying one) is always foremost in her thoughts. But, as the story unfurls, we see that we are wrong, that even though she doesn’t know how to show it she is the mother of all her children and she loves them all. A realization which only serves to up the sadness of it all up a notch, because both Jesse and Anna, the not-Kate children, have psychological issues, their subconscious wanting nothing more than to be noticed by others (as opposed to their actual lives which they live in the shadow of Kate).

A quote from Jesse (the brother):

I wound up that day at the middle of an intersection, smack under the traffic light, with taxis honking and a car swerving off to the left and a pair of cops running to keep me from getting killed. At the police station, when my dad came to get me, he asked what the hell I’d been thinking.
I hadn’t been thinking, actually. I was just trying to get to a place where I’d be noticed.

And one from Anna:

I USED TO PRETEND that I was just passing through this family on my way to my real one. It isn’t too much of a stretch, really—there’s Kate, the spitting image of my dad; and Jesse, the spitting image of my mom; and then there’s me, a collection of recessive genes that came out of left field. In the hospital cafeteria, eating rubberized French fries and red Jell-O, I’d glance around from table to table, thinking my bona fide parents might be just a tray away. They’d sob with sheer joy to find me, and whisk me off to our castle in Monaco or Romania and give me a maid that smelled like fresh sheets, and my own Bernese mountain dog, and a private phone line.

What I liked most: I was utterly charmed by the fact that Julia names her appliances. Her oven is Sylvia (I’m guessing for Sylvia Plath). The fridge is named Smilla (for its sense of snow). And her Braun coffee maker is named Eva.

What I liked least: The fact that the book lost a lot of what made it great (the impossibility to take sides, the moral conflict between the right to one’s own life and the possibility of saving the life of another) when nearing the end, turning the book from achingly dramatic to syrupy in a single scene (SPOILER: the scene where Anna denies everything she said, every single scene where she pleaded for the control of her own life and acted afraid of the surgery, and says that well, I actually couldn’t wait to give Kate my kidney but she made me do this because she wanted to die. And all of the sudden everything that gave the book its depth was gone. It went downhill from there too. END SPOILER).

Recommend it? Yes, I found it a great read and quite the page turner. Some people even liked the ending :D

Written by the same author:
Between the Lines (with Samantha van Leer)