Thursday, October 3, 2013

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell: Wear your heart on a mix tape (and hope it doesn't get banned, punks)

Eleanor and Park
Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 2013
ISBN: 9781250012579

Eleanor and Park are two 16-year-olds living in Nebraska.  They couldn’t be more different: he comes from a middle-class family, has the right clothes, music, and a good family.  Eleanor doesn’t.  She shares a room with four younger siblings, her mom is on a second marriage to an abusive, alcoholic stepfather, and there’s never enough to go around.  Eleanor is roundish and has red hair.  Park is short, and Korean-American.  She is bullied, he is not, but when they sit next to each other on the bus, slowly, very slowly, a deep and true affection begins to develop.  This achingly realistic novel of first love is as authentic as it is simple.  It stunningly redefines what romance means for the YA market, and is strongly recommended to anyone who has a heart (aged 15 and up).  

I’m not kidding.  This. Book.  GAWD.  It was on my radar for many, MANY moons, my amigas kept telling me to read it, the Internet went crazy for took me forever, but I’m very glad I finally did.  It is so profound, yet so quiet and unassuming.  It is simple.  Yet it is...brilliant.  It is incredibly moving yet not extraordinary, which makes it so, and I hope to see more books like this, and way less sensationalism and love triangles from now on in YA because of it!  I want to just throw a bunch of adjectives at you to describe it, like heartbreaking, breathtaking, delicate, moving...just trust me and read it, already - both boys and girls of all mature(r) ages reading this!  Here are a few of the details I’d like to debrief:

I was so moved by the earnest portrayal of poverty Eleanor experiences.  It’s not designed to make you pity her, though you do, but serves much more as a reality check and eye opener for many readers: this is the real way many people the United States live, every day.  Personally, I found the revelation of no toothbrushes especially heartbreaking; it is a simple thing I take for granted, reframed as something so dear and shameful to admit not having to Eleanor.  Not even da-YUM, just straight damn, Rainbow Rowell.  

For many teen readers, I suspect this one will read like historical fiction.  Why?  There’s no Internet!  No cell phones!  People make cassette tapes (that’s where the term mix tape hails from, you actual kids reading this)!  There are records not music files or iTunes!  Walkmen! Things run on batteries!  Crazy!  There were moments that only had me grinning with nostalgia, but made me wonder about the new darling of the Publishing industry, a (I think made up) category called “New Adult.”  If the reason we’re calling it New Adult is because of this...well most of the “new adults” reading this really don’t quite share in that nostalgia.  Take for example, this line:
Or maybe, he thought now, he just didn’t recognize all those other girls.  The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn’t recognize the formatting. (p 72)   
Considering I’m probably on the tail end to fit the category of “real” adults who understand and experienced this reference...I think my point makes itself.  

Lastly: I totally cried on page 73.  Why? Eleanor and Park HOLD HANDS.  Not later, when, like...first love gets real, yo.  But no.  Ole misty eye McGee over here cried when they held hands for the first time.  No other time, just this one, beautiful and simple moment, turned me into a sniffling sap.  That’s the caliber of book we’re dealing with kids.  

So how about we stop trying to ban this book about the importance of love, and read it to learn something instead?

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