READ BOTTOM UP
By Neel Shah and Skye Chatham. (Dey Street Books, 239 pages, $16.99.)
Neel Shah and Skye Chatham present a charming, clever look at what passes for modern romance in the novel "Read Bottom Up," told solely through e-mail and texts. Shah, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and Chatham, a writer in New York, wrote to each other in character back and forth. They also came up with separate correspondence to their characters' best friends, which they didn't show each other. The resulting book resounds with anyone who has dated in the digital age.
New Yorkers Madeline and Elliot meet at the opening of the restaurant he works at, and he asks her out via e-mail. As their relationship unfolds, she continually tries to make sense of his communications and actions with her friend Emily, while Elliot gets advice from his pal David. Their interactions are relatable, as romantic Madeline hopes for the best from commitment-ambivalent Elliot. Are they headed for a happy ending? Shah and Chatham present a resolution that's realistic and satisfying for our times.
By Anna Gavalda, translated by Jennifer Rappaport. (Europa Editions, 176 pages, $15.)
The story begins as Billie, the novel's narrator and namesake, lies injured near the bottom of a rocky ravine in France's Cevennes National Park. Beside her is Franck, a fellow misfit and her best friend, who is delirious with pain after their tumble. It is, of course, entirely Billie's fault that they are in this fine mess.
Since being cast together in a high school play a decade or so earlier, Billie and Franck have come to depend on each other as a matter of life and death.
Billie was a beaten-down girl from an impoverished family; Franck was secretly gay and weighed down by a judgmental father with high expectations. Theirs is a story of unconditional love and a deep, platonic friendship, which unfolds in a series of flashbacks as Billie talks out loud to her "little star" to calm her nerves as night descends on the park.
French author Anna Gavalda lays out the pair's backstory in Billie's overtly casual voice, which feels as if you are reading the meandering jabber of a blog post. With an abundance of ellipses flitting across the pages and prose that is punctuated by slang and frequent f-bombs, readers longing for more straightforward storytelling can be forgiven for finding this free-form writing tedious.
But by then you will have bonded with Billie and Franck and their flawed humanity, and you will want to know two things: how the youthful pair arrived at the bottom of that ravine, and more important, whether they will find their way out alive. The work is a testament to Gavalda's fine storytelling skills, which remain true even in the books' translation into English.