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Leaving Paradise - Simone Elkeles Moving and realistic YA romance

In Simone Elkeles' LEAVING PARADISE, a circle of friends and their families have been ripped apart by a devastating car accident. After a year in juvenile detention, Caleb is able to return home to the lives that his actions altered forever. His victim, Maggie, is slowly recovering from her injuries and thinking of ways to get out of town as quickly as possible. Chance encounters force Caleb and Maggie to confront their memories of the night of the accident, what really happened, and how each of them has changed since then. In doing so, Maggie and Caleb must learn to navigate their complicated relationship, especially after discovering that no one understands what they're experiencing better than each other.

LEAVING PARADISE aptly depicts the gritty and painful aftermath that can happen when one person hurts another, even if unintentionally. Told in alternating first-person point of view, Elkeles' style allows the reader to know both Maggie and Caleb intimately and the grief and struggles that each experiences. Caleb was an immensely likeable character and voice, despite his perceived past flaws, and the portrayal of Maggie's grief, frustration, and anger felt real. The interactions between Caleb and Maggie were touching and raw, and the romantic scenes were well-done and aching, without being too sexual. Secondary characters like Mrs. Reynolds and Kendra added to the complexity of the story. Compared to Elkeles' other books, this story arc felt less contrived and the characters less self-absorbed. The author also finishes with a conclusion that makes sense for the characters, as opposed to creating an ending that would simply please readers.

Despite the emotional impact of the novel, pacing was slow in the first half, and the story arc was very predictable regarding Caleb and Maggie's relationship. At times, the writing felt forced. Caleb's character, while likeable, seemed too articulate and well-adjusted given what he'd endured. The romantic connection was also realized without apparent reason on Caleb's behalf, and Maggie let down her emotional defenses much more quickly than one would expect. Though the ending felt right, unresolved issues remain regarding betrayals, truths, and the unexpected change of heart and resolution of one character.

Taken overall, LEAVING PARADISE was the most aching and realistic book by Elkeles I have read. If I had reviewed the book objectively on writing quality and pacing, I would have given it three stars. However, the book's emotional depth and my reaction to it easily bumped it to four stars. Though it could be a standalone, I'm looking forward to the upcoming sequel, RETURN TO PARADISE, to see where Caleb and Maggie's lives lead next.