Book Reviews: Leaving Paradise and Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles
‘Nothing has been the same since Caleb Becker left a party drunk, got behind the wheel, and hit Maggie Armstrong. Even after months of painful physical therapy, Maggie walks with a limp. Her social life is nil and a scholarship to study abroad—her chance to escape everyone and their pitying stares—has been canceled.
After a year in juvenile jail, Caleb’s free … if freedom means endless nagging from a transition coach and the prying eyes of the entire town. Coming home should feel good, but his family and ex-girlfriend seem like strangers.
Caleb and Maggie are outsiders, pigeon-holed as “criminal” and “freak.” Then the truth emerges about what really happened the night of the accident and, once again, everything changes. It’s a bleak and tortuous journey for Caleb and Maggie, yet they end up finding comfort and strength from a surprising source: each other.’
I’m reviewing these two books together because I breezed through them both in about four hours. I have to be honest — I was disappointed. Elkeles can, and has, done so much better. These felt like short stories and for the life of me I’m not entirely sure why Caleb and Maggie’s story was stretched out into two books.
Leaving Paradise had an interesting premise, and after reading Perfect Chemistry I was excited to see what else Elkeles had to offer, but I can’t get excited over this one. I felt mildly bored and a little irritated while reading. Perfect Chemistry worked so well because the attraction and tension was well handled — sadly, the same can’t be said here. The pacing was completely off — Caleb and Maggie just have no chemistry between them and went from hatred (on Maggie’s side), to indifference (on Caleb’s side) to suddenly confiding their deepest secrets and falling head over heels for one another. Or so Elkeles kept telling me — I just didn’t see it and felt like I had missed something along the way.
I also couldn’t connect with the characters. Neither left much of an impression on me — Maggie was just frustrating to say the least. I really tried to like her, I just couldn’t. She refuses to put any effort or work into her physical therapy, but whines about her limp. Now while I do sympathise with her, she’s had a crappy year and it’s natural for her to resent the accident and feel self-conscious of her leg, but if she wants to heal and walk better, she needs to put the effort in. I’m with Mrs Reynolds on this one. Her frankly embarrassing and weird obsession with Caleb was awkward to read about, hearing how she used to spy on him having sex with his girlfriend and then telling him she was cheating on him with his best friend while begging him to date her instead didn’t endear me to her in the slightest. In fact it was off-putting — Maggie came across as desperate, needy, obsessive and manipulative and I’m not surprised Caleb avoided her or felt uncomfortable around her even before the accident.
Caleb was overall a nice guy, though occasionally quite self-centered. He returns home from jail expecting everything and everyone to go back to the way it was before the accident. His family clearly isn’t coping well at all, but rather than try to understand how badly he’s hurt them, trying to help or fix the situation, Caleb gets caught up in his own problems. He is genuinely sweet and considerate towards Maggie though, but the jump from being a childhood friend, to blaming her for ruining his life, to being all he thinks about, just didn’t work for me at all. The fact that Caleb was well aware Maggie had a crush on him and he wasn’t interested in the slightest before the accident made his sudden feelings for her even more unbelievable, on top of the fact that we never see any progression or building attraction.
If there was one character I did love, it was Mrs Reynolds — an eccentric, bossy old lady who said what I was thinking most of the time. Also — she had a habit of belting out songs randomly.
Overall, Leaving Paradise (awful name for a town) just fell flat for me. Nothing much actually happened, and the relationship (what little there was of it) between Caleb and Maggie felt forced. I don’t mind that they’re together, but I don’t believe it’s some great love affair — Elkeles just didn’t sell it to me. As the synopsis hints, there is something more to the accident, but I felt Maggie’s realisation of it was badly executed and unrealistic; and interesting sub-plots were under-developed, for example Maggie’s relationship with her father. However, it was an enjoyable enough read, and Caleb and Maggie do have some sweet moments — I liked how they pushed one another to move on, and be themselves, it was just lacking the passion I would have expected from an Elkeles novel. The ending, though abrupt, I quite liked, but would have loved, if more had been developed and resolved prior to it in the book.
Recommended Reading Age: 16+
Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles
‘Caleb Becker left Paradise eight months ago, taking with him the secret he promised to take to his grave. If the truth got out, it would ruin everything.
Maggie Armstrong tried to be strong after Caleb broke her heart and disappeared. Somehow, she managed to move on. She’s determined to make a new life for herself.
But then Caleb and Maggie are forced together on a summer trip. They try ignoring their passion for each other, but buried feelings resurface. Caleb must face the truth about the night of Maggie’s accident, or the secret that destroyed their relationship will forever stand between them.’
Return to Paradise follows on 8 months after the first book, and though they try to pretend otherwise, Caleb and Maggie are clearly still pining after one another. They meet up again fairly quickly (after some slightly contrived circumstances) at Re-START — telling their stories to other kids about the dangers of drink driving.
I have to say that the second book in this series frustrated me far more than the first. There was a distinct lack of plot, and instead we get pages and pages of Caleb and Maggie fighting one second, kissing the next, pushing one another away, flirting, then back to pretending they have moved on again. They broke up, then went their separate ways, they changed their minds and got back together again, all the while knowing they only had two weeks before Maggie went to Spain for 9 months. It drove me nuts, and frankly, made little sense. Maggie wants an honest relationship, but knows Caleb is lying about the accident. Caleb — I couldn’t really figure out what his motives were. He went from being a nice guy in the first book to being full of anger and downright nasty and manipulative in Return to Paradise. Why the hell they couldn’t just admit their feelings and tell the truth about the accident I don’t know. I understand Caleb was protecting his sister (who as an important character we barely see), but by the end of two books, enough was enough and everything was drawn out and made far more angsty than it needed to be.
Maggie showed a lot more strength of character in Return to Paradise, but this was undermined by her wavering feelings for Caleb. One minute she’s moved on, the next she knows she’ll never love anyone else and wants to help Caleb reunite with his family. They just didn’t seem to have much of a relationship at all, and this was only more highlighted by the fact that Maggie has a future planned out and leaves for Spain, going of to live her own life, before returning briefly, before leaving again for college.
They were some important story arcs and characters that I was waiting to see developed, but they just never fully materialized — Maggie’s father is, once again, glossed over and the relationship between her mother and Lou is never fully explored either. Leah’s acceptance over what she had done and the decision to tell the truth was well written but I wanted more and we should have seen some back story and build up, other than she started wearing black clothes and was clearly depressed. There was also some unnecessary drama with Brian and Kendra.
Return to Paradise is not a terrible book, despite my complaints, it’s worth a read if you’re an Elkeles fan — but to be honest it lacked any plot and Maggie and Caleb’s story could have easily have been done well in one novel. Instead it was dragged out and got to the point where the character’s motives just didn’t make sense any more. I wasn’t really drawn to Maggie and Caleb in the first book, and liked them even less in this one. I just wasn’t convinced of their feelings for one another and I know Elkeles can write some fabulous chemistry between characters.
Ultimately, this wasn’t as good as Leaving Paradise and unfortunately has an awful, cheesy epilogue that made me cringe (much like the cover!)
Recommended Reading Age: 16+