Eleanor & Park
Set in the 1980s, marginalized teens discover edgy music and fall in love. I know. You want to go there already, don’t you?
Park can’t decide whether Eleanor’s odd beauty represents defiance or self-destructive tendencies. He just knows that he can’t stop thinking about her. Eleanor is both drawn and infuriated by Park’s reserve, which is punctuated by warm honesty that bubbles up like lite-brite spikes through a master painting. Sometimes Eleanor and Park find each other so confusing, and their need for each other so great, that all they can do is share music. Joy Division. The Smiths. U2. Billy Bragg. If you survived the eighties, and if you’ve ever discovered alternative music, you get the picture.
Eleanor is no typical damsel, though she’s in serious distress. Abandoned by a deadbeat dad, Eleanor’s mom struggles to reestablish her family with an unstable and abusive second husband, who always seems one drink away from a murderous rage. Eleanor is also bullied at school, most disturbingly by an anonymous sneak who writes debasing sexual suggestions on her textbook covers.
Park is no typical hero. Asian-white, he has devised his own ways of navigating the social order of high school, establishing détentes with his most powerful peers but never getting too close, keeping his “cool” rep by keeping to the margins.
When Eleanor & Park begin to fall in love, something happens at a deeper level than a reader might expect. Rowell lets Eleanor and Park’s dialogue slip into intimacy, softens gender-based expectations until they dissolve, until damsel and hero are nearly indistinguishable. Throughout, the pair’s passion for each other remains meltingly lovely. Eleanor & Park is fascinating and inspiring and just plain awesome reading.
I re-read this in preparation for this review, and liked it even better the second time. The novel is not as edgy as Eleanor & Park, nor does it try to be. Fangirl is solidly rooted in the seemingly bright, shiny world of teen fan fiction. Rowell makes it her task to reveal an emotional storm under the gloss.
Cather and Wren Avery have been fans of the Simon Snow series since they were little girls–when their mother left, and their father became so challenged by manic depression that he barely held everything together. The twins grew up reading and writing Simon Snow fan fiction. As they embark on their freshman year at Nebraska State University, and as the Simon Snow series approaches its 8th and final installment, Cather has tens of thousands of followers reading Carry On, Simon, her version of the series’ end.
Wren has decided to take a new roommate, and begin a new life. “The whole point of college is meeting new people,” she says.
“The whole point of having a twin sister,” Cath replies miserably, “is not having to worry about this sort of thing.”
While Wren dives headfirst into the world of parties and new experiences, Cath plans to spend her first semester in bed with her laptop–unless her massive stash of protein bars and peanut butter runs out.
Little by little, Cath is drawn out by her brassy roommate Reagan, Reagan’s charming boyfriend Levi (or is he her ex-boyfriend? Cath isn’t sure, and she isn’t going to ask), and by Professor Piper, who teaches the third-year fiction writing class into which Cath has somehow talked her way.
“Why do we write fiction?” Professor Piper asks her class.
To disappear, Cath thinks, keeping her head down.
When Professor Piper gives Cath an F on a fanfiction she wrote for homework, Cath begins to think that she’s not cut out for the “real” world. Wren seems to be changing, too–is it the increasingly heavy drinking and the late nights? Or is it Cath who should be changing, and just can’t?
While Fangirl absolutely follows a romantic thread, Cath’s most important story is that of how she learns to stop disappearing. Rowell rightly avoids the weird lyricism that was appropriate in Eleanor & Park. Instead, the writing is consistently direct and funny. Cath’s willful innocence, as she strives to “stay gold,” is drawn with a bitingly desperate quality that keeps the reader rooting for her, even though we know that her childhood fan-fic world can’t last forever.
So there it is, in 1000 words or less, your introduction to one of the decade’s most charming YA authors! Buy ‘em for the teens in your life, keep them for yourself.