Book Review: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
I love being proved wrong about a book, and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a good example of a happy surprise for me.
It’s possible that I just picked the wrong time of day to start this book. Perhaps I was simply too tired to give it a chance. I read about 50 pages and jotted down some quick notes before heading off to bed. My notes included phrases such as “no point of entry”, “exclusionary feel”, “impenetrable”, and “can’t relate”. Not a very auspicious beginning, to say the least.
And yet… when I continued the next day, I found my attitude toward this book completely turned around. So how and why did that happen?
For starters, a brief synopsis:
Nick is the 18-year-old bass player in a teen “queercore” punk band, who feels music — and life — deeply and passionately. Nick has been dumped recently by his girlfriend, and when she shows up at his gig, he impulsively asks the flannel-wearing girl at the bar to be his fake girlfriend for five minutes. The flannel-clad girl is Norah, who has just turned down Brown University in order to follow her on-again, off-again boyfriend to a “kibbutz” in South Africa for a year, and who is starting to realize that everything in her life may be a big mistake. Nick and Norah fake-kiss… but boy, it feels good, and thus starts a night of music, clubs, city streets, drunken friends, cab rides, Oreos, and dancing in the rain.
The book is written in alternating chapters, switching between Nick’s narration (written by David Levithan) and Norah’s (written by Rachel Cohn). The pace is quick and sharp, with dialogue that is witty, vulgar, and in-your-face. Nick and Norah are a couple of angst-ridden, deeply introspective teens, who think deeply about life, love, music, friendship, and finding meaning in the world. The beauty of this book is in the inner workings of Nick and Norah’s minds and in seeing the interplay from one chapter to the next, as Nick and Norah reinterpret each other’s actions and words, and we see the chasms of misunderstanding that must be bridged over the course of one night.
I’m always fascinated by the single-night story — they meet, they share an intense moment… but will they part forever when the sun comes up? Of course, the best example, in my mind, is Before Sunrise, a movie I could watch again and again. Nick & Norah ends up fitting nicely into this mode, showing how a chance encounter blossoms into an unexpectedly delicious and slightly dangerous, extremely intense connection. The rising sun feels like a deadline, and the only question is whether to say good-bye or face a new day together. I won’t say which happens here; in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, it’s the journey that matters.
So why the about-face for me regarding this book? Again, perhaps it was just a matter of starting the book at the wrong time, but I found the early chapters somewhat off-putting due to their setting in the Lower Manhattan punk-rock scene. The club, the people, and the musicians — all seemed to be flashing the words “not for you” at me in big neon letters. I read a lot of young adult fiction. I am definitely not a young adult myself. But as I’ve said many times, the best YA fiction is just good fiction, period. You shouldn’t need to be a teen or twenty-something to read a book about people in that demographic, so long as it’s a good book with well-drawn characters. At the beginning of Nick & Norah, I felt that age would be a barrier to my enjoyment. As the story progressed, however, I began to really enjoy Nick and Norah’s explorations not just of each other but of their own fears and hopes. The more deeply the characters journeyed, the more I came to appreciate the passion and emotion expressed by the gorgeous, full-frontal, no-holds-barred writing.
I was originally drawn to this book after having read the authors’ two other collaborative efforts, Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares and Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List. Both were lovely, and both featured the pattern of alternating voices that work so well in Nick & Norah. As an added attraction, all three books read as love letters to New York, and it’s great fun to revel in this glorified, gritty version of the city, its people, and its hidden treasures.
A note: I have not seen the movie version of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and I’m not sure that I’d want to. For me, the glory of the book is in getting inside the characters’ heads, and I can’t imagine that translating well to the big screen. Plus, from the movie stills I’ve seen, the casting does not at all match the pictures in my head, and I don’t want to replace “my” Nick and Norah with the Hollywood version. (But if you’ve read the book and seen the movie, please do share your thoughts! How do they compare?)
All in all, I’m very glad that I stuck with this book long enough to get past my initial turned-off phase, as I ended up enjoying it very much. This is a short, quick, intense read, but one which really held my interest and touched my emotions as well.