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?
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.
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.
If you liked this you may like:
- 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“. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- if we don’t count that the psychiatrist will probably end up being Delilah’s step dad [↩]
- 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. [↩]