BOOKS: MediaMaven Reviews “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”

I used to read a lot of Young Adult novels. I spent most of my teen years reading YA novels, til I realized that I was getting older and the books were getting stupider. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is one of the better YA novels. The characters are relatable, the story is fun, both unrealistic and totally realistic, and there’s the added bonus of a map and songs to enhance the story.

I don’t remember YA novels having characters that are this natural, who curse this much, who have this much sex in this fashion. YA books are either pure all-out fantasy or angst-ridden, often a combination of both. While Nick & Norah does have its elements of wish-fulfillment, the story as a whole is affecting and real.

I read the book about a week after I saw the movie, and John is right—the book is better than the movie. He’s already done an extensive review comparing the movie to the book version, so I will try not overlap.

There were many moments where I wondered why the movie needed to depart so much from the book. Although many adaptations work independently, here the movie skimps too much on the central story, which is the burgeoning love between the title characters, focusing instead on a background character here, a person who Norah thinks about a lot. There is acknowledgment of her being a good friend, much in the same vein as Caroline’s confession in Norah’s arms at the end of the movie, but not much other than a person who Norah cares for and who supports her.

Both stories feature incredibly realistic dialogue. The places in the book are all real, and as a Jerseyan, I loved the shout-outs to my neighboring town and other local places. Both Norah and Nick are very relatable and fun. I wouldn’t have cast Michael Cera in the movie at all. Usually when one sees a movie and then reads the book version of the story, the characters appear as the actors who played them in the movie. I only got that with Tris, even though both she and the main characters are incredibly different than their book counterparts. Nick sports none of the Michael Cera awkwardness and shyness that characterize his characters. Despite his issues with both Norah and Tris, Nick comes across as normal, less awkward and mumbly; he is not as pathetic as he is depicted in the movie.

I really enjoyed Tris here, too. Despite her tendency to be mean and flippant, she had real, believable reasons for breaking up with Nick, and it is in the scene where she explains them to Norah that I love her. Norah and Tris are real friends, sharing secrets and helping each other out. Tris does like Nick, and she is noted by both Nick and Norah as having good taste in music; she does actually like Where’s Fluffy.

Tal is a greater jerk here than in the movie, ruining Norah’s self-esteem. While much is made of his desire for her father to listen to his band’s demo, here he is demeaning, insulting, and just a plain terrible boyfriend. In the movie, he’s actually seen as caring, if misguided, for most of the picture, not the incredibly self-esteem killer who needs to be kicked in the nuts a couple times.

The little details and references work beautifully. Norah’s compares her anger over Nick to My So-Called Life being cancelled, and she later lifts a section of dialogue from the show that mirrors her life. She’s indecisive, rash, and a fool, but all the more loveable because of it. Both Nick and Norah talk about being straight-edge, a term I didn’t hear until I was in college but now seems a whole subset of the emo crowd. Tris especially refers to her female friends as “bitches”, an affectionate take on the term that I personally dislike, but one that is a part of youth slang.

All the characters, even the bit ones, felt like real people, not stereotypes that could have so easily fit into the story. So many things in the book are depicted as normal, where they just wouldn’t be anywhere else—how Norah liked a guy in middle school who turned out to be gay, and the only reason she found this out is because she was beat to the kiss by another boy; the trannies and their whole scene; all the gay kids and their relationships to other characters. Even the confusion and angst wasn’t overwrought or overdrawn, a tough thing to do when writing romance. Norah’s religiosity, Norah’s attitude toward sex, and her anger at her reputation of being “frigid” are all things rarely, if ever, brought up in teen books, and I appreciated all these “issues” finally getting their due.

I also appreciated that it was acknowledged several times how tired the two main characters were as the evening progressed, a point I brought up in the movie.

I do wish that the book didn’t have inserts of scenes from the movie with related captions, just because they stuck out so much. The scenes and the lines didn’t match up. They had no relation to the book. I understand the book’s cover—marketing tactic—but I want to see what the original cover looked like, before it was optioned.

I acknowledge that I’ve gotten to the point where whenever I see a positive romantic and realistic development on the screen I immediately think it’s wish-fulfillment, because that clearly doesn’t happen in real life. This cynical attitude was brought out right away, as when Nick and Norah share their first kiss, following the “Would you please be my girlfriend for five minutes?”, because both of them think the other is a great kisser. Likely, but unlikely. But overall, this didn’t bother me, as so many of the other details superseded that feeling.

As to the music: Both the movie’s soundtrack and John’s personal version don’t mesh with what I picture the real soundtrack to be. First of all, there is a lot of actual music mentioned in the book, songs that are on Nick’s mixtapes, covers played in the clubs, lyrics sung, CDs in his car. Most of the stuff they listed to was punk—the Clash and Green Day were mentioned more than once. They both loved the (neo) punk aesthetic, which is why they were both astonished to meet another straight-edge. John’s soundtrack, with all respect to him, is too ska. The movie soundtrack is dreamy emo—none of the song are mosh-pit worthy, which is just wrong. There should be lots of up-tempo, raucous songs, the kind that make you want to jump out and down and sing aloud, go crazy and get lost in the music. Indeed, there’s a scene when that happens, but the Nick & Norah soundtrack is supposed to be billed as the new indie hip thing, and it falls flat. Nick and Norah themselves like music that is somewhat established, so most music fans will recognize many, if not all the songs mentioned.

Nick & Norah is a quick read, and it’s a good foray into the underworld of YA literature. It’s a relatively lighthearted romance with a dose of big city lights and a rockin’ soundtrack (if you download the music the book mentions). The dialogue, characters and situations are natural and realistic; the story felt like it could actually happen. Most books that incorporate music generally deal with love, and for the most part, you can’t go wrong with the genre. I’m glad that I can add Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist to that list.

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3 Responses

  1. “As to the music: Both the movie’s soundtrack and John’s personal version don’t mesh with what I picture the real soundtrack to be.” I’m not even the least bit offended. I felt that the whole point of the book was for you, the reader, to imagine your own songs for them to have listened to. Part of the reason they use so many fictional band names and song titles is to avoid dating the book, which goes hand in hand with their more timeless musical choices (if you call the Beastie Boys and The Clash timeless, which I do!)

    I figured you’d get a kick out of the references to My So-Called Life. I intentionally left that out of my review so it’d be a surprise (since I felt guilty for spoiling almost everything else.)

    As far as Straight Edge goes, I was actually surprised to see so many references to it in the book. It’s funny that the emo crowd has appropriated it as a movement, since it began as a subset of hardcore punk (popularized by Minor Threat singer Ian McKay) in the 1980s. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. The bastards stole checkers away from ska kids, so why wouldn’t they steal from other genres?

  2. […] have been interested in seeing the movie in the least. Which puts me in the minority among my co-bloggers, who liked the book more than the film. I started reading it while at the friend’s house I […]

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