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Published in the United States by Dutton Books,
For Jarrod, best friend & true love
Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, although I have no idea what the function of either actually is. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and a lot of kings named Louis. I’m not sure what they did either, but I think it has something to do with the French Revolution, which has something to do with Bastille Day. The art museum is called the Louvre and it’s shaped like a pyramid and the Mona Lisa lives there along with that statue of the woman missing her arms. And there are cafés or bistros or whatever they call them on every street corner. And mimes. The food is supposed to be good, and the people drink a lot of wine and smoke a lot of cigarettes.
I’ve heard they don’t like Americans, and they don’t like white sneakers.
A few months ago, my father enrolled me in boarding school. His air quotes practically crackled over the phone line as he declared living abroad to be a “good learning experience” and a “keepsake I’d treasure forever.” Yeah. Keepsake. And I would’ve pointed out his misuse of the word had I not already been freaking out.
Since his announcement, I’ve tried yelling, begging, pleading, and crying, but nothing has convinced him otherwise. And now I have a new student visa and a passport, each declaring me: Anna Oliphant, citizen of the United States of America. And now I’m here with my parents—unpacking my belongings in a room smaller than my suitcase—the newest senior at the School of America in Paris.
It’s not that I’m ungrateful. I mean, it’s Paris. The City of Light! The most romantic city in the world! I’m not immune to that. It’s just this whole international boarding school thing is a lot more about my father than it is about me. Ever since he sold out and started writing lame books that were turned into even lamer movies, he’s been trying to impress his big-shot New York friends with how cultured and rich he is.
My father isn’t cultured. But he is rich.
It wasn’t always like this.When my parents were still married, we were strictly lower middle class. It was around the time of the divorce that all traces of decency vanished, and his dream of being the next great Southern writer was replaced by his desire to be the next published writer. So he started writing these novels set in Small Town Georgia about folks with Good American Values who Fall in Love and then contract Life-Threatening Diseases and Die.
And it totally depresses me, but the ladies eat it up.They love my father’s books and they love his cable-knit sweaters and they love his bleachy smile and orangey tan. And they have turned him into a bestseller and a total dick.
Two of his books have been made into movies and three more are in production, which is where his real money comes from. Hollywood. And, somehow, this extra cash and pseudo-prestige have warped his brain into thinking that I should live in France. For a year. Alone. I don’t understand why he couldn’t send me to Australia or Ireland or anywhere else where English is the native language. The only French word I know is oui, which means “yes,” and only recently did I learn it’s spelled o-u-i and not w-e-e.
At least the people in my new school speak English. It was founded for pretentious Americans who don’t like the company of their own children. I mean, really. Who sends their kid to boarding school? It’s so Hogwarts. Only mine doesn’t have cute boy wizards or magic candy or flying lessons.
Instead, I’m stuck with ninety-nine other students. There are twenty-five people in my entire senior class, as opposed to the six hundred I had back in Atlanta. And I’m studying the same things I studied at Clairemont High except now I’m registered in beginning French.
Oh, yeah. Beginning French. No doubt with the freshmen. I totally rock.
Mom says I need to lose the bitter factor, pronto, but she’s not the one leaving behind her fabulous best friend, Bridgette. Or her fabulous job at the Royal Midtown 14 multiplex. Or Toph, the fabulous boy at the Royal Midtown 14 multiplex.
And I still can’t believe she’s separating me from my brother, Sean, who is only seven and way too young to be left home alone after school. Without me, he’ll probably be kidnapped by that creepy guy down the road who has dirty Coca-Cola towels hanging in his windows. Or Seany will accidentally eat something containing Red Dye #40 and his throat will swell up and no one will be there to drive him to the hospital. He might even die. And I bet they wouldn’t let me fly home for his funeral and I’d have to visit the cemetery alone next year and Dad will have picked out some god-awful granite cherub to go over his grave.
And I hope Dad doesn’t expect me to fill out college applications to Russia or Romania now. My dream is to study film theory in California. I want to be our nation’s greatest female film critic. Someday I’ll be invited to every festival, and I’ll have a major newspaper column and a cool television show and a ridiculously popular website. So far I only have the website, and it’s not so popular.Yet.
I just need a little more time to work on it, that’s all.
“Anna, it’s time.”
“What?” I glance up from folding my shirts into perfect squares.
Mom stares at me and twiddles the turtle charm on her necklace. My father, bedecked in a peach polo shirt and white boating shoes, is gazing out my dormitory window. It’s late, but across the street a woman belts out something operatic.
My parents need to return to their hotel rooms. They both have early morning flights.
“Oh.” I grip the shirt in my hands a little tighter.
Dad steps away from the window, and I’m alarmed to discover his eyes are wet. Something about the idea of my father—even if it is my father—on the brink of tears raises a lump in my throat.
“Well, kiddo. Guess you’re all grown up now.”
My body is frozen. He pulls my stiff limbs into a bear hug. His grip is frightening. “Take care of yourself. Study hard and make some friends. And watch out for pickpockets,” he adds. “Sometimes they work in pairs.”
I nod into his shoulder, and he releases me. And then he’s gone.
My mother lingers behind. “You’ll have a wonderful year here,” she says. “I just know it.” I bite my lip to keep it from quivering, and she sweeps me into her arms. I try to breathe. Inhale. Count to three. Exhale. Her skin smells like grapefruit body lotion. “I’ll call you the moment I get home,” she says.
Home. Atlanta isn’t my home anymore.
“I love you, Anna.”
I’m crying now. “I love you, too. Take care of Seany for me.”
“And Captain Jack,” I say. “Make sure Sean feeds him and changes his bedding and fills his water bottle. And make sure he doesn’t give him too many treats because they make him fat and then he can’t get out of his igloo. But make sure he gives him at least a few every day, because he still needs the vitamin C and he won’t drink the water when I use those vitamin drops—”
She pulls back and tucks my bleached stripe behind my ear. “I love you,” she says again.
And then my mother does something that, even after all of the paperwork and plane tickets and presentations, I don’t see coming. Something that would’ve happened in a year anyway, once I left for college, but that no matter how many days or months or years I’ve yearned for it, I am still not prepared for when it actually happens.
My mother leaves. I am alone.
I feel it coming, but I can’t stop it.
They left me. My parents actually left me! IN FRANCE!
Meanwhile, Paris is oddly silent. Even the opera singer has packed it in for the night. I cannot lose it. The walls here are thinner than Band-Aids, so if I break down, my neighbors—my new classmates—will hear everything. I’m going to be sick. I’m going to vomit that weird eggplant tapenade I had for dinner, and everyone will hear, and no one will invite me to watch the mimes escape from their invisible boxes, or whatever it is people do here in their spare time.
I race to my pedestal sink to splash water on my face, but it explodes out and sprays my shirt instead. And now I’m crying harder, because I haven’t unpacked my towels, and wet clothing reminds me of those stupid water rides Bridgette and Matt used to drag me on at Six Flags where the water is the wrong color and it smells like paint and it has a billion trillion bacterial microbes in it. Oh God.What if there are bacterial microbes in the water? Is French water even safe to drink?
Pathetic. I’m pathetic.
How many seventeen-year-olds would kill to leave home? My neighbors aren’t experiencing any meltdowns. No crying coming from behind their bedroom walls. I grab a shirt off the bed to blot myself dry, when the solution strikes. My pillow. I collapse face-first into the sound barrier and sob and sob and sob.
Someone is knocking on my door.
No. Surely that’s not my door.
There it is again!
“Hello?” a girl calls from the hallway. “Hello? Are you okay?”
No, I’m not okay. GO AWAY. But she calls again, and I’m obligated to crawl off my bed and answer the door. A blonde with long, tight curls waits on the other side. She’s tall and big, but not overweight-big.Volleyball player big. A diamondlike nose ring sparkles in the hall light. “Are you all right?” Her voice is gentle. “I’m Meredith; I live next door. Were those your parents who just left?”
My puffy eyes signal the affirmative.
“I cried the first night, too.” She tilts her head, thinks for a moment, and then nods. “Come on. Chocolat chaud.”
“A chocolate show?” Why would I want to see a chocolate show? My mother has abandoned me and I’m terrified to leave my room and—
“No.” She smiles. “Chaud. Hot. Hot chocolate, I can make some in my room.”
Despite myself, I follow. Meredith stops me with her hand like a crossing guard. She’s wearing rings on all five fingers. “Don’t forget your key. The doors automatically lock behind you.”
“I know.” And I tug the necklace out from underneath my shirt to prove it. I slipped my key onto it during this weekend’s required Life Skills Seminars for new students, when they told us how easy it is to get locked out.
We enter her room. I gasp. It’s the same impossible size as mine, seven by ten feet, with the same mini-desk, mini-dresser, mini-bed, mini-fridge, mini-sink, and mini-shower. (No mini-toilet, those are shared down the hall.) But . . . unlike my own sterile cage, every inch of wall and ceiling is covered with posters and pictures and shiny wrapping paper and brightly colored flyers written in French.
“How long have you been here?” I ask.
Meredith hands me a tissue and I blow my nose, a terrible honk like an angry goose, but she doesn’t flinch or make a face. “I arrived yesterday. This is my fourth year here, so I didn’t have to go to the seminars. I flew in alone, so I’ve just been hanging out, waiting for my friends to show up.” She looks around with her hands on her hips, admiring her handiwork. I spot a pile of magazines, scissors, and tape on her floor and realize it’s a work in progress. “Not bad, eh? White walls don’t do it for me.”
I circle her room, examining everything. I quickly discover that most of the faces are the same five people: John, Paul, George, Ringo, and some soccer guy I don’t recognize.
“The Beatles are all I listen to. My friends tease me, but—”
“Who’s this?” I point to Soccer Guy. He’s wearing red and white, and he’s all dark eyebrows and dark hair. Quite good-looking, actually.
“Cesc Fàbregas. God, he’s the most incredible passer. Plays for Arsenal. The English football club? No?”
I shake my head. I don’t keep up with sports, but maybe I should. “Nice legs, though.”
“I know, right? You could hammer nails with those thighs.”
While Meredith brews chocolat chaud on her hot plate, I learn she’s also a senior, and that she only plays soccer during the summer because our school doesn’t have a program, but that she used to rank All-State in Massachusetts. That’s where she’s from, Boston. And she reminds me I should call it “football” here, which—when I think about it—really does make more sense. And she doesn’t seem to mind when I badger her with questions or paw through her things.
Her room is amazing. In addition to the paraphernalia taped to her walls, she has a dozen china teacups filled with plastic glitter rings, and silver rings with amber stones, and glass rings with pressed flowers. It already looks as if she’s lived here for years.
I try on a ring with a rubber dinosaur attached. The T-rex flashes red and yellow and blue lights when I squeeze him. “I wish I could have a room like this.” I love it, but I’m too much of a neat freak to have something like it for myself. I need clean walls and a clean desktop and everything put away in its right place at all times.
Meredith looks pleased with the compliment.
“Are these your friends?” I place the dinosaur back into its teacup and point to a picture tucked in her mirror. It’s gray and shadowy and printed on thick, glossy paper. Clearly the product of a school photography class. Four people stand before a giant hollow cube, and the abundance of stylish black clothing and deliberately mussed hair reveals Meredith belongs to the resident art clique. For some reason, I’m surprised. I know her room is artsy, and she has all of those rings on her fingers and in her nose, but the rest is clean-cut—lilac sweater, pressed jeans, soft voice. Then there’s the soccer thing, but she’s not a tomboy either.
She breaks into a wide smile, and her nose ring winks. “Yeah. Ellie took that at La Défense. That’s Josh and St. Clair and me and Rashmi. You’ll meet them tomorrow at breakfast. Well, everyone but Ellie. She graduated last year.”
The pit of my stomach begins to unclench. Was that an invitation to sit with her?
“But I’m sure you’ll meet her soon enough, because she’s dating St. Clair. She’s at Parsons Paris now for photography.”
I’ve never heard of it, but I nod as if I’ve considered going there myself someday.
“She’s really talented.” The edge in her voice suggests otherwise, but I don’t push it. “Josh and Rashmi are dating, too,” she adds.
Ah. Meredith must be single.
Unfortunately, I can relate. Back home I’d dated my friend Matt for five months. He was tall-ish and funny-ish and had decent-ish hair. It was one of those “since no one better is around, do you wanna make out?” situations. All we’d ever done was kiss, and it wasn’t even that great.Too much spit. I always had to wipe off my chin.
We broke up when I learned about France, but it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t cry or send him weepy emails or key his mom’s station wagon. Now he’s going out with Cherrie Milliken, who is in chorus and has shiny shampoo-commercial hair. It doesn’t even bother me.
Besides, the breakup freed me to lust after Toph, multiplex coworker babe extraordinaire. Not that I didn’t lust after him when I was with Matt, but still. It did make me feel guilty. And things were starting to happen with Toph—they really were—when summer ended. But Matt’s the only guy I’ve ever gone out with, and he barely counts. I once told him I’d dated this guy named Stuart Thistleback at summer camp. Stuart Thistleback had auburn hair and played the stand-up bass, and we were totally in love, but he lived in Chattanooga and we didn’t have our driver’s licenses yet.
Matt knew I made it up, but he was too nice to say so.
I’m about to ask Meredith what classes she’s taking, when her phone chirps the first few bars of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” She rolls her eyes and answers. “Mom, it’s midnight here. Six-hour time difference, remember?”
I glance at her alarm clock, shaped like a yellow submarine, and I’m surprised to find she’s right. I set my long-empty mug of chocolat chaud on her dresser. “I should get going,” I whisper. “Sorry I stayed so long.”
“Hold on a sec.” Meredith covers the mouthpiece. “It was nice meeting you. See you at breakfast?”
“Yeah. See ya.” I try to say this casually, but I’m so thrilled that I skip from her room and promptly slam into a wall.
Whoops. Not a wall. A boy.
“Oof.” He staggers backward.
“Sorry! I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you were there.”
He shakes his head, a little dazed.The first thing I notice is his hair—it’s the first thing I notice about everyone. It’s dark brown and messy and somehow both long and short at the same time. I think of the Beatles, since I’ve just seen them in Meredith’s room. It’s artist hair. Musician hair. I-pretend-I-don’t-care-but-I-really-do hair.
“It’s okay, I didn’t see you either. Are you all right, then?”
Oh my. He’s English.
“Er. Does Mer live here?”
Seriously, I don’t know any American girl who can resist an English accent.
The boy clears his throat. “Meredith Chevalier? Tall girl? Big, curly hair?” Then he looks at me like I’m crazy or half deaf, like my Nanna Oliphant. Nanna just smiles and shakes her head whenever I ask, “What kind of salad dressing would you like?” or “Where did you put Granddad’s false teeth?”
“I’m sorry.” He takes the smallest step away from me. “You were going to bed.”
“Yes! Meredith lives there. I’ve just spent two hours with her.” I announce this proudly like my brother, Seany, whenever he finds something disgusting in the yard. “I’m Anna! I’m new here!” Oh God. What. Is with.The scary enthusiasm? My cheeks catch fire, and it’s all so humiliating.
The beautiful boy gives an amused grin. His teeth are lovely—straight on top and crooked on the bottom, with a touch of overbite. I’m a sucker for smiles like this, due to my own lack of orthodontia. I have a gap between my front teeth the size of a raisin.
“Étienne,” he says. “I live one floor up.”
“I live here.” I point dumbly at my room while my mind whirs: French name, English accent, American school. Anna confused.
He raps twice on Meredith’s door. “Well. I’ll see you around then, Anna.”
Eh-t-yen says my name like this: Ah-na.
My heart thump thump thumps in my chest.
Meredith opens her door. “St. Clair!” she shrieks. She’s still on the phone. They laugh and hug and talk over each other. “Come in! How was your flight? When’d you get here? Have you seen Josh? Mom, I’ve gotta go.”
Meredith’s phone and door snap shut simultaneously.
I fumble with the key on my necklace. Two girls in matching pink bathrobes strut behind me, giggling and gossiping. A crowd of guys across the hall snicker and catcall. Meredith and her friend laugh through the thin walls. My heart sinks, and my stomach tightens back up.
I’m still the new girl. I’m still alone.
The next morning, I consider stopping by Meredith’s, but I chicken out and walk to breakfast by myself. At least I know where the cafeteria is (Day Two: Life Skills Seminars). I double-check for my meal card and pop open my Hello Kitty umbrella. It’s drizzling. The weather doesn’t give a crap that it’s my first day of school.
Excerpted from "Anna and the French Kiss"
Copyright © 2011 Stephanie Perkins.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
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