“Between the Lines,” her first foray into young-adult fiction, comes with its own origin story: The novel is co-written by Picoult and her own teenager, Samantha van Leer, who told her mom, “I think I have a pretty good idea for a book.” Mother and daughter took turns at the computer, alternating sentences without wanting to murder each other — which makes the effort, if nothing else, a massive triumph in parenting.
A fairy-tale romance with a twist
And it is a good idea: a plot based on the concept that the characters in your favorite novels have lives and agendas that continue even when you’re not reading. “Between the Lines” is a romance between a girl and a boy, but even more, it’s a love letter to the visceral bond between a reader and a musty, beloved book.
The book, in this case, is the eponymous “Between the Lines,” a fairy tale that 15-year-old Delilah unearths in her school library and becomes obsessed with in a way that will give many parents post-traumatic “Twilight” flashbacks. Easy, girl. Step away from the Edward. Oliver is no sparkly vampire, but a prince destined to escape the same villain, outsmart the same mermaids and rescue the same simpering princess again and again, every time a new reader opens the book.
It’s a wearying spin cycle for Oliver, so when he and Delilah realize that they can communicate outside of his prescribed story line — sneaking away to Page 43, where his soliloquy provides them with a backdrop for a private conversation — he begs her to rescue him. The endeavor is made considerably more complicated by the fact that he’s two-dimensional, three centimeters tall and completely fictional.
It’s fascinating, in a book about a character becoming trapped in his own hero-narrative, to watch Picoult be unable to un-Jodi herself from the moves that made her famous. As with most of her books, the narration is split between multiple perspectives: Delilah, Oliver and the fairy-tale story itself, each written in its own stylized font and accompanied by some lovely illustrations.
The book-within-a-book construct is always iffy — it’s hard to invent something you’ve set up as a beloved classic — but here it works. The fictional “Between the Lines” is funny and unexpected, featuring a dragon with a toothache and a prince with a confidence problem. Tonally, it’s more like “Brave” than “Snow White,” and it’s fascinating to watch the authors address the problem of what it would be like to live not just in a story, but in a physical book. Characters trudge through the pulpy white wilderness between chapters; a string of pearls becomes a string of letters: P-E-A-R-L-S.
But even with some innovative twists and an ending I didn’t see coming, the novel as a whole could use a tad more of that magic. It relies on a love-story trope that it seems too good for: The main characters fall in love because they fall in love because they fall in love. (Why? They love each other!) Delilah doesn’t seem overly worried that Oliver might be conflating true affection with his desperation to become 3-D, but I couldn’t help fretting for her: Honey, he just wants a green card! What happens when she’s not the only human girl who knows he’s more than an ink doodle?
Fortunately, the novel ends before the couple has to deal with that. As in any good fairy tale, Picoult and van Leer leave them at the entryway to Happily Ever After — though heaven only knows what those two kids have been up to since I finished the last page.
Hesse is a writer in Style.
Hesse is a writer in Style.