The first young adult novel by Jodi Picoult -- whose number of bestselling novels (nineteen) is greater than the number of years her co-author, daughter Samantha Van Leer, has been alive (sixteen) -- is a modern fairy tale with a high-concept twist: "What if the characters in a book had lives of their own after the cover was closed? What if the act of reading was just these characters performing a play, over and over...but these characters had dreams, hopes, wishes and aspirations beyond the roles they acted out on a daily basis for the reader? And what if one those characters desperately wanted to get out of his book? Better yet, what if one of his readers fell in love with him and decided to help?"
According to Picoult's introduction, the premise of the novel came from her then-twelve-year-old daughter, who pitched Picoult while on book tour. The idea that one might interact with one's imaginary friends has been a recurring theme in children's literature, from The Velveteen Rabbit (what if your stuffed animals came to life?) to The Neverending Story, but any child of the 1980s who has ever seen animated video for the Norwegian band aha's "Take On Me" can summon from memory Morten Harket's pencil-sketched form trying valiantly to escape the margins of his comic book to meet his lady, while pursued by pipe wrench-wielding thugs in helmets.
This particular good-looking guy confined by book covers is black-haired, blue-eyed Prince Oliver (rendered handsomely in full-color plates by illustrator Yvonne Gilbert, complete with Robin Hood green tunic and artfully tousled Harketian fringe). Each time his book is opened, it arrives at a happy ending with character-Oliver wed to the equally lovely Seraphima, with "hair so pale it shimmered like silver," "eyes the violet of royal robes," and skin that "glowed like moonlight." Alas, offstage, Oliver the real boy has visions of a dark-haired girl with eyes "like honey" whose "lips taste like mint and winter and nothing like Seraphima."
Imagine his surprise, then, to see this very girl one day looming large over the top of his page. The girl is fifteen-year-old Delilah Eve McPhee, a high school sophomore living in New Hampshire with a kind and beautiful mother reduced, by marital misfortunes, to the humble -- and very fairy-tale-esque -- profession of housecleaner. Delilah is also a devoted reader, and her favorite book happens to be Between the Lines, by Jessamyn Jacobs -- starring Oliver. When the two meet on page 43, they discover they can speak to one another. And they have so much in common! Both grew up without a father (Oliver's slain by a dragon; Delilah's conquered by a second wife who bears him two more children and absconds with him to Australia); both feel "like a square peg in a round hole." And as Delilah says, "Being a teenager isn't all that different from being part of someone else's story. There's always someone who thinks they know better than you do." They are also united in finding each other uncommonly attractive.
Unfortunately, Oliver is still a two-dimensional drawing on a page, and each time he hurls himself at Delilah, he encounters an invisible scrim that causes him to ricochet back into his own story. This necessitates all form of imaginative engineering -- one is tempted to suggest, Dude, try the pipe wrench! -- to draw the lovers together. (Spoiler alert: there is a kiss, at which point Delilah discovers that Oliver's breath tastes like "maple syrup.")
This being a modern fairy tale for contemporary young women, concessions are made: mermaids spout feminist rhetoric, and Delilah's retorts include, "I want you in my life. But I want it to be my life!" And: "In my world, you don't get married at fifteen, unless you are pregnant and have been on an MTV show." The characters flirt with the philosophical questions one would expect from those who spend time with books for a living: Is the author God? Do the books write themselves, or does the author write the books? Who owns the story -- writer or reader? Not all of these brain-teasers are satisfactorily resolved, but the Picoults ensure that girls who love fairy tales and boys who love war games are equally united in their happily-ever-after twist.
Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Times Book Review.