Dial: 290 pp., $17.99; 290 pp., for ages 12 and up
Ever since Stephenie Meyer's"Twilight" grew into a worldwide phenom, paranormal romance has been dominated by shape-shifting mythological creatures embroiled in torrid, hormonal love triangles. So "The Girl With Borrowed Wings" is a welcome departure. Written by first-time novelist Rinsai Rossetti, this elegant, young-adult debut is a paranormal title, but the creature who shape-shifts is a common cat, and the romance is overshadowed by a domineering father so cold that his teenage daughter no longer believes in love.
It's difficult to find modern, young-adult titles that so effectively convey female oppression or the perils of perfectionism. Whether it's the searing Middle East heat that keeps 16-year-old Frenenqer isolated in three "boxes" — her home, her school and the gleaming white sedan that shuttles her between the two — or a family so unaffectionate and unadventurous that Frenenqer spends all of her free time reading books, the isolation is palpable.
Frenenqer isn't a name so much as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The word means "restraint," which is the manner in which Frenenqer is expected to conduct herself. She is the quintessential good girl who perceives her father as all powerful and suppresses her real thoughts and desires to conform to his ideals. If her father told the sky to rain, it would; if he told Frenenqer to jump off a cliff, she'd do it, she says.
So when Frenenqer rescues a mangy cat from an animal market against her parents' wishes, she describes it as "the most exciting thing that had happened to me in years." She nurses it back to health, only for it to escape. Or so she believes.
The cat is just the feline incarnation of a so-called Free person — an individual who lives without rules and can sprout wings on command, allowing him to travel anywhere in the world at a moment's notice, often through Frenenqer's window. Sangris, as he's called, is the yin to his savior's yang. Sangris sees limits as providing meaning. Being free means being alone, he believes, whereas Frenenqer, whose only freedom comes through books, craves a life where she calls the shots.
Both have hopscotched the world — a lifestyle that has formed them but has also left them without a sense of belonging. In her 16 years, Frenenqer has lived in Italy, India, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand, Costa Rica and Fiji. Such frequent movement has left Frenenqer feeling like a constant alien, she says. But it's had an even worse effect on her life. Her dad has culled the values of different lands into a code of conduct for his only daughter. Frenenqer is supposed to act shy, as women do in Thailand. She's supposed to apologize to anyone she brushes against, as they do in Canada. And she definitely isn't allowed to smile at men, especially in the Middle East.
It's hard not to read "The Girl With Borrowed Wings" as at least somewhat autobiographical since the author shares so many traits with her novel's protagonist. Like Frenenqer, Rossetti is a mix of Thai, Italian and other ethnicities and has lived all over the world, most recently in the United Arab Emirates. She is just 21 — so close in age to the book's narrator that she easily taps into the emotional confusion and parental conflict that define the teen experience.
In each other, Frenenqer and Sangris begin to indulge their yearning for connections that are between humans instead of merely to a place by traveling, on the sly, to the lands that most influenced them. But such a loving connection is difficult to forge. Frenenqer's upbringing has her questioning whether love even exists and rebuffing Sangris' affectionate overtures with the usual defenses of a woman who can't remember ever being hugged. She is sarcastic, overly polite and distancing as much as she's appreciative of and exhilarated by the attention.
Told from Frenenqer's perspective, "The Girl With Borrowed Wings" tackles the conundrum of the perfectionist: Is it better to seek love from a father who will only grant it for living a lie or to be loved by a young man who recognizes and appreciates you for who you truly are when you believe you're worthless? Either path is unhealthy yet common. Rossetti probably didn't intend her debut to be a how-to guide for blazing a third path, but young readers who struggle with perfectionism may find it eye-opening and inspiring.