Off the Page by Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer, book review: Central conceit remains fascinating in a witty fairy tale

The central conceit, whereby readers and characters manage to enter each other’s world, is a fascinating one

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Sixteen-year-old Delilah, in retreat from her peer group, finds she can transport Prince Oliver from her favourite fairy story out of its pages into her real life. She has long adored him and he, released from the tedium of recreating his story every time the book is read, falls in grateful love with her. Thus the main plot of Between the Lines, a number one New York Times bestseller during 2012 written by mother and daughter Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer. They have now followed this up with Off the Page, taking the story of Delilah and Oliver a stage further. 

Samantha Van Leer, still at high school when the first novel appeared, was well qualified to reproduce the snap and crackle of daily teenage point-scoring. Now a student at Vassar College, her memory remains sharp as Delilah continues to fight verbal battles with nasty class rival Allie McAndrews. 

Jodie Picoult, an established novelist, brings in her own more mature experience of how to craft a story. This comes in useful when the narrative refers back to the previous title. Her skills make sure that Off the Page still rates as a stand-alone story, although some of the characters drawn from the original fairy tale remain undeveloped for those unacquainted with them before.

Oliver’s problems dealing with a modern world, reminiscent of the young hero in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee, can be funny. But while Twain also mocked what he saw as sentimental cults of medievalism, mother and daughter here simply set out to entertain.

This they do tolerably well, although they include far too many protestations of eternal love followed by long sessions of kissing but nothing else, so ensuring an easy passage with America’s current self-appointed moral guardians. The writing itself is good but not great, with ships slicing through waves like a knife cutting through butter and ground shifting under feet at bad moments.

But the central conceit, also explored by the German children’s author Cornelia Funke, whereby readers and characters manage to enter each other’s world, remains a fascinating one. While digital games and films have often delivered this particular form of wish-fulfilment, books themselves have generally had less to offer here.

Yvonne Gilbert’s lavish full colour illustrations, something of a rarity in young adult fiction, help maintain the illusion in this novel. Oliver appears so handsome he just has to be believed in while beautiful Princess Seraphina, his fairy tale consort, is a constant vision of sartorial splendour, with the blue jeans she once bought on a brief foray into the real world nowhere in sight.    

Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030