Wednesday, June 15, 2011

leaving paradise by Simone Elkeles

For the past year, 17 year old Caleb Becker has been an inmate at the Illinois Department of Corrections Juvenile complex (DOC). Caleb is in juvie because he was convicted of hitting a girl, Maggie Armstrong, while driving drunk. Maggie was severely injured and required numerous surgeries to repair her damaged legs. She has spent the past year recovering from  her injuries and now walks with a limp.

Maggie Armstrong lives with her mother Linda in the town of Paradise, Ohio. She  is looking forward now more than ever, to the following January when she will be going to Spain on a tennis scholarship. Maggie wants to leave Paradise to get away from the place where her accident happened. Things haven't been going so well for her family. Her father left her mother two years ago and she misses her dad very much. Her mom works at Auntie Mae's Diner to support them.

The book opens with Caleb being released from DOC to return home and Maggie returning to school as a senior. The story is told in the alternating voices of Caleb and Maggie. Caleb struggles to fit in at school, while trying to stay out of trouble so he can be fully released from the DOC. He use to be part of the wrestling team but can no longer participate because of his community service work requirement. He is seen by his peers as the brooding ex-con.
Meanwhile, Maggie also struggles to settle back into school.The accident has resulted in a shift in Maggie's friendships. She is now the outsider in a clique that once included her tennis friends Danielle and Brianne and her cousin, Sabrina. But more significantly, Maggie was very close to Caleb's twin sister, Leah Becker. Since the Armstrong and Becker families live across the street from one another, they once had a close friendship. That friendship is now also destroyed as a result of the accident.

Despite their attempts to avoid each other, circumstances are such that they end up working at a neighbour's home. That neighbour is Mrs. Reynolds, the mother of Maggie's mother's employer. Caleb is assigned to work at Mrs Reynold's for his community service hours. Maggie is offered a chance to be Mrs. Reynold's companion after she learns that Maggie cannot go to Spain because she has lost her sports scholarship and must pay her way. When Maggie and Caleb are thrown together, a romantic friendship begins to blossom. Both realize that the other is not what they expected, especially Caleb who likes Maggie for her honesty. Each begins to find strength from the other as they are now both outsiders in their community.

Eventually, though things begin to unravel for both Maggie and Caleb. Maggie has trouble trusting Caleb, which is understandable, given the situation. Eventually, we learn about a secret Caleb is carrying that is destructive to both himself and his family. When Maggie figures out this secret, she comes to understand Caleb's behaviour and realizes that Caleb is the one who doesn't trust her or himself.

The numerous unexpected twists and turns in this novel create suspense and develop the readers interest to learn what will happen next. I can't really discuss any of these unexpected plot developments without spoiling the book for anyone who hasn't read it. The developing romantic element also helps support the reader's interest, although I personally found that there was too much sexual description.

Caleb and Maggie were well defined, likeable characters. The reader develops more empathy for Caleb once the true nature of his situation is revealed. Maggie matured during the novel,  more so than Caleb whose decision near the end was the wrong one in my opinion. Maggie began to accept her physical limitations and to work with them and around them. Kendra, Caleb's girlfriend before the accident, is a foil to Maggie. They are opposites but especially when it comes to character. Kendra's mantra is to use people, while Maggie has grown since her accident to think about how other people feel.

I wasn't sure how realistic it is for a 16 year old to end up doing a year of jail time in a juvenile detention center. According to my research for a first DUI conviction in Illinois for a person under the age of 21, the penalty is loss of driving license for a minimum of 2 years, up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2500. So Caleb's incarceration seems reasonable, considering he was driving drunk, seriously injured someone and he left the scene of the accident.

Simone Elkeles has written a sequel to Leaving Paradise called Return to Paradise which I hope to read. I'd love to know what happens to Maggie and Caleb as well as what decisions, if any his twin sister Leah makes.I originally thought the title of the book might refer to Maggie but the reader learns later on this is not the case.

I highly recommend this book but there are many suggestive sexual scenes in the latter portion of the book as well as numerous f-bombs dropped by the character, Caleb. The overall storyline is interesting and the romance helps draw teen readers in.

Book Details:
Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles
Woodbury, MN: Flux Llewellyn Publications   2007
303 pp.

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