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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Paper Boats

Dee Lestari

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To purchase Paper Boats

Title: Paper Boats
Author: Dee Lestari
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 389 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: Paper Boats - US
Paper Boats - UK
Paper Boats - Canada
  • Indonesian title: Perahu kertas
  • Translated by Tiffany Tsao
  • Made into a film in 2012, directed by Hanung Bramantyo

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Our Assessment:

B : sappy and spirited -- though overly reliant on lack-of-communication twists

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Paper Boats begins in the summer of 1999, Keenan headed back to Indonesia to start university, after spending his teen years with his grandmother in Amsterdam. He goes to study in Bandung, joining his cousin, Eko, and Eko's girlfriend, Noni; he is also immediately introduced to Noni's best friend, Kugy. There's an immediate spark between Keenan and Kugy, kindred spirits with a strong artistic side -- he as a painter, she with ambitions to become a ... fairy tale writer -- and, although she already has a boyfriend, Paper Boats is basically an elaborate -- and extended (four-year !) -- dance of will they or won't they.
       Both Keenan and Kugy face obstacles to realizing their artistic dreams. Keenan's businessman father is opposed to him devoting himself to painting -- for, as it turns out, a very personal reason -- and insists that the boy apply himself to serious studies. The bubbly, quirky Kugy knows exactly what she wants -- but everything and everyone around her suggests it's ridiculous. As she explains to Keenan:

     "When I was little, wanting to become a fairy tale writer sounded cute. But now that I'm grown up, it just sounds unrealistic and stupid. At the very least, I'll have to become a serious writer first. Then, once I've established myself and people begin to see me as a real writer, I can write all the fairy tales I want."
     "So you want to become something that you aren't in order to eventually become who you really are ? Is that what you are saying ?"
       Keenan reads some of her fairy tales and is inspired by her wor(l)ds -- leading him to illustrate them. It's no surprise that he -- and his work -- are the perfect complement to her(s). The paintings he paints are very good -- and he realizes he must follow his dream. Circumstances even lead to the unknown artist being exhibited in a leading art gallery -- the gallery owner's daughter showing interest in both the art and the artist. Success, however, is not easy to come by, and circumstances eventually lead Keenan to flee almost everything he knows and has.
       Kugy and Keenan had quickly become close friends, but a romantic entanglement never seems feasible, the one always seeing the other already tied up elsewhere. Complicating matters, they almost never talk things out, neither among themselves nor with their relatives and friends. This is a book full of the unspoken -- and not just between Keenan and Kugy --, leading to misunderstandings that remove characters from each others lives for years at a time -- a twist that doesn't so much get tired as frustrating; there are (too) many points where one wishes the characters would just spit it out already .....
       Both Kugy and Keenan are thrown off their artistic paths: Kugy immerses herself in her studies, manages to graduate early, and gets a job that she soon excels at -- but that keeps her from her fairy tale writing. Deprived of his inspiration, Keenan's efforts at painting are frustrated -- and when his father falls ill, Keenan returns not just to the fold but to the family business, holding down the fort until his father recuperates. Along the way, Kugy and Keenan also find love-interests who are pretty much everything they could ask for -- and yet .....
       Everyone is terribly understanding in Paper Boats, with lovers recognizing that true love trumps all, and that they can't stand in the way of it -- though the question remains: will Keenan and Kugy finally find their way to each other ? There are certainly obstacles -- including an annoying tendency of characters to be (physically) out of reach for (really) extended periods of time -- but can there be any doubt ? Admirably, Lestari does manage a semblance of suspense -- and a nice touch is that when Kugy and Keenan finally talk things out and reveal their feelings a real get-together seems unlikeliest.
       Lestari quite artfully juggles the story. Many of the characters are almost too good to be true -- only incidental characters are truly unpleasant or mean --, with Keenan top of his class when he begins university and Kugy quickly enjoying great success when she gets a real job, yet it hardly matters. Lestari manages to focus her novel so on the personal (and artistic) that more mundane details are hardly missed: strikingly, we never get any sense of Keenan's work when he stands in for his father, or Kugy's thesis, etc. One success story at Kugy's workplace is enough to coast home with the rest of the way, for example.
       The personal stories -- manifesting mainly in romance -- do tend to the sappy, but as far as this sort of thing goes it too is quite well done, with only some of Kugy's quirks perhaps a bit too forced (signing her name as 'Kugy Karmachameleon' ?). Yes, everyone is way too understanding, and some of the encounters -- characters dealing with each other, unaware of their relationships with other characters -- a bit too forced and convenient -- but then Kugy is a fairy tale writer, and so surely it's fair enough for there to be a very fairy tale element and feel to the novel.
       The demure handling of romance is also interesting, the very light touch with regards to intimacy (excepting a very bizarre beach scene (involving a banana)) surprisingly effective -- though it does give the novel something of a YA feel compared to Western college-aged romance fiction.
       Paper Boats is ultimately lite romance reading, but quite successful as such, Lestari putting her obvious talents to good -- if somewhat modest -- use here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 May 2017

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Reviews: Paper Boat - the film: Dewi 'Dee' Lestari: Other books by Dewi Lestari under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Popular Indonesian author Dewi 'Dee' Lestari was born in 1976.

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© 2017 the complete review

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