I hope to make this a weekly post (obviously) but I’ve already failed to meet my goal of posting at least once a week so we’ll see how this goes.
I was originally going to write about John Green and The Fault in Our Stars, largely because I was hesitant about it in the beginning (the whole cancer-patient-trope kind of bugs me). However, I inevitably enjoyed the book and the movie–especially as I had time to absorb it and think about it. But I think the Internet has done that for me.
I’m an avid consumer of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour from NPR. If you don’t listen to it, they critically analyze all forms of popular culture–books, music, television, movies, video games, tropes, etc.–in a very fun and snappy way. I highly recommend it. They end each episode with a segment called, “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” where they basically recommend different pop culture artifacts. Sometimes it’s a YouTube video. Sometimes it’s an album. Sometimes it’s a book.
Last fall, I was listening to the podcast and heard Linda Holmes mention the book Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and how good it was. She kept bringing it up in subsequent episodes and I also saw it pop up on HelloGiggles. The world was telling me to read this book. However, I don’t get to read too much for pleasure throughout the school year, but I was heading to Minneapolis for a conference (by car–from Oklahoma) and decided to buy it on my Kindle.
In short, I read the book in three days. I devoured it. As soon as it was over, I immediately wanted to pick it up and read it again. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Eleanor and Park.
Eleanor & Park is a special book. It is rare in YA fiction to see characters who are so carefully crafted across the board.
Throughout the book, Eleanor deals with an abusive stepfather. She shares a bedroom with her four little siblings and pins scraps of fabric to cover up the tears and holes in her secondhand clothes that don’t quite fit, drawing the negative and unwanted attention of the mean, popular kids who call her “Big Red.”
Meanwhile, Park is the only half-Korean kid at school and struggling under the weight of his dad’s imposing masculinity. He walks through school with his head down. He finds comfort in punk rock and experiments with eyeliner.
Somehow, he and Eleanor find each other. Through comic books and The Smiths and Watchmen.
I don’t want to say too much about this book, because you should just read it. As YA demi-god John Green said in his book review, “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”
Additionally, I just finished Rowell’s other YA novel, Fangirl. Again, I read it in two days. Essentially, Fangirl is about fearful and anxious Cath, an epic fan-fiction writer who goes to college with her twin and struggles when her sister, Wren, decides she wants independence. That means Cath has to live with a scary potluck roommate, Reagan, whose boy-toy? Levi never leaves the room. Cath has to learn how to do college on her own–and in the beginning she just doesn’t. Instead of going to the caf, she lives off of protein bars in her room. Eventually, Reagan takes pity on Cath and their friendship is sweet and hilarious. “But you’re so helpless sometimes. It’s like watching a kitten with its head trapped in a Kleenex box,” Reagan tells her.
Throughout the book, Cath is also trying to finish her giant fan-fiction before the end of her favorite saga comes out (the equivalent of writing a fictional Harry Potter Book 7 before JK Rowling published her version) while balancing a “literary” fiction-writing class. Anyone who’s taken a workshop class can guess what happens next.
Fangirl, like Eleanor & Park has great romance, but it also touches on mental illness, family drama, and what it’s like to be a freshman in college. It’s also a book about writing in a very elegant and meta way without being too showy, which is hard to do. Fangirl was a really fun read. I couldn’t help but relate to the protagonist who was painfully introverted and painfully nerdy, both of which Rowell celebrated.
Rowell is also the author of the adult novels Attachments and the upcoming Landline. You can follow her on Twitter @rainbowrowell. (She’s really nice!)