Between the Lines
Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer
Emily Bestler Books: 368 pp., $19.99, ages 12 and up
Jodi Picoult is best known for weaving controversial issues of the day into compelling narratives. It’s a formula that’s propelled “Lone Wolf,” “Nineteen Minutes” and several other of her 19 novels to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. In her newest, however, Picoult is taking a different tack with the comedic love story, “Between the Lines” — her first young-adult novel. The fact that Picoult’s co-author is her teenage daughter only makes her children’s debut more interesting, particularly because it’s so good.
“Between the Lines” begins with a note from Picoult, gushing about her now-16-year-old daughter’s creativity and the difficulties of harnessing it after Samantha van Leer first approached her mother with the basic idea that became “Between the Lines”: What if a fairy tale’s characters lived entirely different lives after the book’s cover was closed? What if happily ever after wasn’t real but an act that was becoming so intolerable that one of the book’s characters wants to escape the story entirely, and plots to do so with the help of a reader who’s fallen in love with him?
It’s an exceedingly clever concept that would be challenging to pull off, if not for the deep understanding of character, plot and pacing provided by Picoult, whose author’s note serves a dual purpose. Without an explanation, readers might not get beyond the first chapter, which reads like a well-written, if generic, fairy tale about a prince who’s tricked into saving a beautiful damsel in distress. It’s only when readers get to Chapter 2 that the story takes off.
Prince Oliver, it turns out, in the first of several chapters written from his perspective, resents being trapped in a story that has him saying “I do” to the young beauty he only loves on the page but can’t stand when the book is closed. Once upon a time, he laments, is really hundreds of times for the characters who are forced to reenact the story whenever someone from the so-called otherworld wants to read it.
But the fairy tale and its dashing prince protagonist are exactly why a 15-year-old loner named Delilah has read and re-read the book so many times that she notices the words “help me” scrawled across Page 43. Page 43 isn’t only the scene in which Prince Oliver scales a cliff with a dagger clenched in his teeth en route to rescue the violet-eyed Seraphima. It’s the sole page in the book where Prince Oliver appears by himself, allowing him to communicate with the otherworldly Delilah without anyone else in the book knowing.
Delilah isn’t so lucky. When her mother hears her talking to the book, she confiscates it and drags Delilah to a psychiatrist. So begins the love story, and the battle for Oliver and Delilah to be together, however improbable it seems.
“Between the Lines” alternates between three narratives: The fairy tale, Prince Oliver’s perspective of being stuck on the page and Delilah’s point of view as the fairy tale’s most avid fan. The layout helps readers move between the novel’s three story lines. While the fairy-tale sections are written in black text and illustrated like a traditional Brothers Grimm, whenever the story switches to Oliver’s or Delilah’s perspective, so does the color of the text to blue or green.
Picoult and Van Leer do a wonderful job tackling the logistical problems such a complex story presents. When the book is closed, the characters are free to wander around and do what they want, which is oftentimes distinctly at odds with the roles they play for readers. The mermaids aren’t boy crazy, for example, and Oliver’s loyal dog companion actually talks. When the book is about to open, however, an announcement rings out: “Places, everyone! ... We have light along the seam, people!” In an instant, the characters are dragged from whatever they’re doing and put in the proper clothes and scenes.
Conceptually, “Between the Lines” is reminiscent of the “Toy Story” movies, which show the lives toys lead when their owners aren’t watching. Picoult’s and Van Leer’s novel is executed just as artfully. Employing witty banter between the characters in a fast-paced, inventive narrative, the mother-daughter writing team never lets readers forget what it’s like to be Oliver, who needs to squint to see the book’s page numbers in the corners, and tries, unsuccessfully, to puncture a page and create a hole to escape.
“Between the Lines” stands the fairy-tale trope on its head, pointing out the fallacies of once-upon-a-times and happily-ever-afters and reversing the prince’s role to the dude in distress. And it toys with other bookish ideas, as well, such as the notion that characters speak to their author-creators and readers. An exploration of the nature of escapism that asks whether reality is any more real than make-believe, “Between the Lines” will delight readers of all ages whose imaginations willfully blur that distinction.