Viola in Reel Life

Viola in Reel Life was exactly the sort of book I needed to read today, on a kinda-dismal day in the life of Shelf Elf. This is a feel-good, angst-free story, well-constructed, with a charming protagonist and a solid cast of supporting characters. (Complete aside: don’t you love the cover? I would feel immediately sunnier if had my own pair of happy yellow shoes, I’m sure of it!)

Adriana Trigiani makes her YA debut with Viola, and her first effort makes me curious to read her next YA offering. In film-review lingo, Viola in Reel Life is a “crowd-pleaser.” This might be one reason why it won a place on Indiebound’s Autumn ’09 Next List. I can’t imagine many readers will finish this book without grins on their faces.

Viola Chesterton is “marooned” for a year in South Bend, Indiana, at the Prefect Academy for Young Women, since her documentary-making parents are heading to Afghanistan to work on their latest film. Her mother thought it would be perfect for Viola to go to the same school she had attended for a year when she was a girl. In Viola’s opinion, South Bend might as well be as far away from Brooklyn, NY as Afghanistan. A true city girl, Viola isn’t sure how she’s going to survive in the Midwest without her best friend Andrew and the crazy non-stop whirlwind of her hometown. She’s pretty sure that the only way she will get through it is by focusing on her film-making. She doesn’t start off her grade nine year with an open mind, but somehow she finishes it with three great friends, her first real romance, and a lot more experience making movies that she had expected.

Trigiani’s style makes for breezy reading. I sped through this book the way I would read a Maeve Binchy novel (yes, I do read a little Maeve Binchy sometimes, usually in a single day on the couch with a box of chocolates nearby). The characters are just fleshed out enough, and the private school setting comes through well. The four roommates reminded me of the girls from the Traveling Pants series, each one a little bit different in appearance and interests, bringing out the best in each other and forming a perfectly cohesive and quirky friendship circle. There’s nothing tortured about Viola, which I liked a great deal. Her growth away from perfectionism and the need to always be in control, towards being open to new experiences, rings true. I am imagining that the subsequent books in this series could easily be written from the perspectives of the other friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the direction Trigiani is headed.

Just to note, this is an especially “clean” teen book, which is pretty refreshing when there’s just so much boy-lusting going on in so many YA titles out there. Not that I’m in the business of promoting clean reads, but for a change, I appreciated the emphasis on Viola’s inner growth, and it was a bit different to have the focus be on this character’s future professional and artistic goals rather than on her landing the perfect guy.

This is a just-right, happy read about good friends, surprising yourself, and taking change with an open mind. Not earth-shattering, but certainly satisfying.

Viola in Reel Life is published by Harper Teen.

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