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Return to Paradise - Simone Elkeles Disappointed and saddened with sequel

After discovering Simone Elkeles as a favorite author earlier this year, I was eagerly awaiting the release of RETURN TO PARADISE, the sequel to my favorite novel of hers, LEAVING PARADISE. However, after reading it, I'm disappointed to say I wish I hadn't.

In RETURN TO PARADISE, eight months have passed since Caleb left Maggie standing beside a road as he left for an uncertain future. Since then, Maggie has tried to move on and has planned her first year at college as a study-abroad student. Caleb, on the other hand, has been slumming it at odd jobs and living in a drug house. When circumstances throw them together for a month-long road trip to do outreach education to other teens, Caleb and Maggie must determine whether they can have an honest and lasting relationship, especially with the secret about the accident still looming between them.

Sadly, the plot and characterization in RETURN TO PARADISE destroyed the warm feelings I had for the characters in the previous book. The novel opens with a very contrived set-up that forces Maggie and Caleb back together. Following this, horribly slow pacing plagued the novel, as did a lack of definitive action or plot movement. While I fell in love with Caleb's character in the first book, where he was kind, loyal, and upright behind a tough mask, he became cruel, manipulative, and intentionally hurtful to others in this book, including Maggie. The sweet and aching romantic spark between the two is gone and is replaced with an overly sexual Caleb who's no longer gentle or consistent and who is physically unkind at times. In the plot, the constant flip-flop of their hot and cold relationship seemed to occur without reason or purpose. Even in the good parts, their relationship no longer felt genuine or considerate. While Maggie has grown into a stronger person, her character changes and those in Caleb were never explained. The internal dialogue of Maggie and Caleb consisted of manufactured realizations and declarations about each other that seemed to come from nowhere. Also, secondary characters came across as unimportant or underdeveloped. Though most of Elkeles' novels provide a satisfying ending, even if somewhat artificial, the conclusion of this book felt unsatisfying because it didn't ring true for the characters or the preceding plot.

On the positive side, I did enjoy the alternating first-person viewpoints of Maggie and Caleb again. The book also provided resolution to certain plot points left hanging from the first book, and the novel did try to examine some real issues, like trust, family division, and the continued effects of one's actions and the lies that can sprout from that.

These points, however, were not enough to make me enjoy this read. While I finished LEAVING PARADISE with a bittersweet pull in my chest regarding Maggie and Caleb, I'm now left feeling only bitter because I can't enjoy them and their relationship any more after reading this book.