Book Review

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

B+

Title: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Author: Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Publication Info: Knopf Books 2007
ISBN: 0375835334
Genre: Young Adult

Sarah reviewed Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist for Romancenovel.tv earlier this week, and I was supposed to get in on the HOT HOT VIDEO REVIEW ACTION, but alas, technical fuckiness got in the way. It ain’t easy being bi…coastal. So you get a review the old-fashioned way instead, which is almost definitely for the best, because appearing on TV presents all sorts of difficulties, such as dealing with the fact that I’m Sarah’s Tyler Durden. (And if you’re wondering whether this is my incredibly roundabout way of saying that I’m actually Brad Pitt…well, I’ll ask you this: have you ever seen the two of us in the same room?

Think about it.)

My corporeal status notwithstanding, here’s what I think of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist:

I like it. I like it a lot. It’s not perfect by any means, and I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with it, but it is a fresh and daring beastie, and in many ways, it’s a very well-crafted story. The book, not unlike a good pop song, is rife with hooks. Behold:

1. It’s about a boy who asks a stranger to be his Five-Minute Girlfriend. I am a sucker for this storyline. The Fake Fiancé(e) plot will get me every. Goddamn. Time.

2. In the tradition of some of the greatest coming-of-age tales, like American Graffiti, it takes place in the course of one night.

3. Late-night teenage capers! In Manhattan!

4. The book is written exclusively in first-person, with all the bits from Nick’s perspective are written by David Levithan, and all the bits from Norah’s perspective are written by Rachel Cohn, and the chapters alternate point-of-view.

Good, clean fun.

So Our Intrepid Hero, Nick, is the bassist for a queercore band and has just finished playing a show when his Evil Ex Girlfriend hoves into view. In desperation, he turns to the girl in flannel standing next to him and asks her whether she’ll be his five-minute girlfriend. And after some struggle, she agrees. And they share a smoking-hot kiss. And then her Evil Ex appears. And then assorted adventures ensue, including hijinks that involve a dying Yugo, a jacket named Salvatore and a strip club featuring dancers who dress up like nuns while performing songs from The Sound of Music. And since it’s a YA novel, along the way, the two of them learn valuable lessons about letting go, taking chances, making the right sorts of choices and not moving too fast. Awww!

And really, if there’s one thing I have to complain about with this book, it’s that I could sometimes spot the Big Lessons too easily. I didn’t like it when I was a kid, and I like it even less as an adult. Cohn and Levithan aren’t especially heavy-handed with it (unlike the utterly execrable Rainbow Party), but some of the characters behaved in perfectly convincing precocious teenagerish ways, and other times behaved in ways that you would mostly see only in a YA novel. Nick’s Evil Ex, in particular, was inconsistent in rather jarring ways, and there were times when I wondered why Nick and Norah didn’t behave more like the horny teenagers they are, but these quibbles are minor. What I liked about the book far outshone the problems I had with it. There are three things in particular that stand out for me:

1. The way it talks about music. Music is an incredibly visceral experience for me, and it’s taking over a lot of the “Keep Candy Happy and Sane” tasks that leisure reading used to accomplish (because leisure reading time isn’t exactly in plentiful supply nowadays, cry). I’m a bit of a music geek (if I weren’t so slapdash about the way I dress, I’d probably qualify as *gulp* a hipster), and going to a show is often a full-body experience for me. Cohn and Levithan capture that really, really well, with all the force and unfettered passion of teenagers whose emotions well so full and so hot, they threaten to burst out of their skins.

2. Its portrayal of teenage sexuality. Norah is horny. Nick is horny. They fool around. They’re not virgins. They think very frankly about sex. Yeah yeah yeah, I mention up above that I wish Nick and Norah had behaved more like horny teenagers, but by and large, this book captures the impetuousness and sexiness and high-running emotion of teenage crushdom without seeming either exploitative or preachy. Teenagers think a lot about sex, and the book treats that as a given without making it a point of titillation. That’s hard to do, bitches.

3. This is probably my favorite aspect of all: I love, love, love the queer-friendliness of this book. This is not your mom’s YA novel. Nick plays in a queercore band. His bandmates are gay. Norah, at one point, has doubts about Nick’s sexual orientation, and she’s peeved because she wants his hot ass, and not because being gay is somehow revolting or villainous. During the night, they go to a strip club full of drag queens and strippers dressed as nuns. There’s a little bit of girl-on-girl making out. And it’s all portrayed as more-or-less the status quo. I especially loved the fact that Nick’s sexuality comes off as somewhat ambiguous to the outside eye. When was the last time somebody like this was portrayed positively in a romance novel? Shit, when was the last time a character like this was actually a hero in a romance novel? I can’t think of too many. Nick’s ambiguousness and the general queer-friendly air of the book were a breath of fresh air, especially compared to the way romance novels tend to hyper-masculinize their men—which, paradoxically, enough, often makes me wonder what they’re attempting to compensate for. The contrast Nick provided was especially stark because I read this right after I finished Dark Lover by JR Ward.

And speaking of Nick, I would like to state for the record that for much of the book, I felt like a pedophile because he is HOLY CRAP SO HOT. It’s highly disconcerting to develop a hard-on for a fictional character 11 years younger than me, but seriously? I’d do Nick, and do him hard.

Sarah, in her video review, mentioned the ending and the issue of the Happily Ever After. I have some issues with the way the way the Happily Ever After is often portrayed and treated in romance novels, and the rather strange and, to be perfectly frank, somewhat fucked-up expectations we seem to have, but that’s another rant for another day. I agree with Sarah: the ending is excellent and full of hope and future adventure, and it doesn’t make the typical mistake that many stories do that take place in similarly compressed timelines, i.e., end with the protagonists declaring love everlasting (like the creepy and awful and unintentionally hilarious “Naughty Under the Mistletoe”).

In short, if you’re looking for a Young Adult romance that’s unusual, unabashedly urban and topical (though it sometimes verges on the fleetingly scenester-ish—fifteen years from now, kids reading this will be snickering and rolling their eyes at the references to emo and hipsters, I have a feeling), pick this book up. It’s unlike any YA novel I’ve read, and I really wish I’d had something like it when I was a teenager. I certainly love reading it now, well past my teenage years, and have Cohn and Levithan re-capture some of the spark and turmoil of those years for me.


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Liz says:

    It’s about a boy who asks a stranger to be his Five-Minute Girlfriend. I am a sucker for this storyline. The Fake Fiancé(e) plot will get me every. Goddamn. Time.

    Oh god I love this storyline too. Although my favorite variation is probably one friend asks another friend to be their fake girl/boyfriend more than the stranger Five-Minute girl/boyfriend.

    Either way it sounds like I need to pick this book up considering my YA kick I’ve been on lately.

  2. 2
    sara says:

    I’m so glad you liked this! And I would totally do Nick as well; the whole time I was reading the book I was lusting after his hot ass.

    Which is why the casting of Michael Cera (from Arrested Development and Superbad) in the Nick and Norah movie dismays me. Sure, he’s the right age, but I don’t want to do naughty, nasty things to Michael Cera. I’m trying to think of an actor the right age that I do lust after, but by and large I don’t go for folks born after, oh, 1985. For good reason, I think.

    Anyway, I loved this book. Everyone should read it.

  3. 3
    darlynne says:

    I read this book on Sarah’s recommendation and really liked it. As I am so far removed from the current music scene as to be nearly deaf, specific references whizzed right past me, but the role of music and the characters’ connection to it still resonated.

    Nick and Norah were terrific in all their teenage uncertainty and horniness. Even the evil exes were interesting; one showed a surprising but believable depth, the other was truly manipulative and creepy.

    The only drawback for me, and another indication that I am old, is the prevalence of “fuck” as adjective, the new “you know”, the salt shaken over everything. Teens won’t care, but I hesitate to give this to my favorite 14-year old; her mom and I still like to delude ourselves about what she already knows.

  4. 4
    lisabea says:

    My 17 year old daughter had this book mixed in a stack of Terry Pratchett and Gossip Girl novels. She handed it to me and said, correctly, “You’ll love this one.” I did. I loved it. Isn’t it great when your kid gives you an awesome book to read?

  5. 5
    Meezergrrrl says:

    Hey Sarah -

    Great review.  You briefly touched on the origins of Nick and Nora – I believe this may be a play on Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles detective characters:

    http://www.mysterynet.com/hammett/

    I really enjoyed all of the Dashiell Hammett books back in college, and highly recommend them for those times when you just need a romance break.

    -Meezergrrl

  6. 6
    Elizabeth says:

    It’s a little bit of a departure, but if you dig on the sexually ambiguous hero/love interest, you might look to the mystery section for further reading.  Laurence Saunders’ Archie NcNally character was WAY too concerned about people who wore socks with their loafers to be completely straight.  To a lesser extent, Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series might fit the bill.  The heroine thinks the love interest is gay through the whole first book.  Turns out he ain’t—but I’ve never been totally convinced.

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    I love when Candy and I agree on a book – it’s so rare. But this novel grabs onto new facets of romance that aren’t fully explored yet, as Candy pointed out: ambiguous sexuality and the idea that gay characters are completely normal and not exceptional merely because they’re gay.

    And I’m so glad Sara told me to read it.

  8. 8
    Madeleine says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading this book. And the movie. But not because of Michael Cera. Oh no. I am all about Jonathan B. Wright even though I have no idea what his role is and he’ll probably have about thirty seconds onscreen.

    So, yeah, I may end up buying this with my own money even! Jesus. Imagine that.

  9. 9
    Stephanie says:

    Y’all will love Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List.

  10. 10
    Stephanie says:

    … but not my HTML when I get distracted. Le sigh.

  11. 11
    sara says:

    OMG you guys: As I was walking home from work on Friday night I noticed lights and trailers – usually want denotes “we are shooting a movie and/or Law & Order here.” I was curious, so I looked at the trailer closest. One door said “Norah”…and the other said “Nick” and I almost fell the eff over.

    Nick and Norah! Near my apartment! Like, five blocks from my apartment! SWOON!

  12. 12
    Kerry says:

    Candy, if you’re looking for a sure-fire good read about teenagers and music, try K.L. Going’s Fat Kid Rules The World, about 2 guys who wind up saving each other and seeking clarity through punk. I have a review up on my blog.

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