Eleanor & Park & Me

Rainbow Rowell’s second novel (and debut YA), Eleanor & Park, got a rave review from John Green in The New York Times. Some of my reader-friends agreed. But I still might not have read it had I not enjoyed Attachments so much and thus trusted Rowell as a writer, because the book has some caution flags for reader-me. I would have missed out, had I stayed away. What caution flags?

1. It sounded like it might be a Young Adult genre romance. Two of the cover quotes use the word “romance.” I enjoy a romantic thread in my YA reading, but the closer it gets to genre romance conventions, including a central love story, the less comfortable I am. It’s partly the plausible HEA problem (yes, I know several happily-married couples who met in high school, but they generally didn’t begin thinking in HEA terms until later). It’s partly that falling in love is given so much prominence, as if that were the central requirement for coming of age.

It’s also that I think genre romance eroticizes its characters. (The same two cover quotes use the word “sexy”). A romance doesn’t need explicit sex scenes to do that; that’s not what I mean. It’s closer to the “heroine is a placeholder, reader falls in love with the hero” thing. Not every writer thinks that way, and not every reader reads that way, of course, but I still think romance invites us to enter into the characters’ desire for each other. I’m not sure I can explain it more clearly than that. I don’t want that reading experience with teen protagonists. (I’m not saying you’re a pervert if you like YA romance; not everyone has the same reading experience I do. But it makes me feel kind of icky).

2. It sounded like it might be melodrama. More cover quote words that made me nervous: “tear-jerking, breathless, aching, fear-laced, heartbreaking.” Melodrama is often used pejoratively, but that’s not what I mean. It’s an ancient–and highly popular–art form. In Classical times, a melodrama was “any drama accompanied by music to enhance the emotional impact and mood of the performance” (most films made today are melodrama by this definition). In Victorian times, melodrama became popular, partly because it allowed people to get around laws about where plays could be performed by including music. These performances featured “sensational events” and evil villains, but “no matter what the ostensible subject matter, the chief concern of melodrama was to elicit the desired emotional response from the audience.” So I’m using melodrama to mean a work with sensational, somewhat extreme situations and events used to create a heightened emotional effect. [Quotations in this paragraph are from the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 2nd ed. Not because I’m fancy but so I would know what I was talking about.]

My threshold for feeling emotionally manipulated is pretty low, and I tend to steer clear of books that emphasize a strong emotional response, as if feeling were an end in itself rather than a natural outgrowth of the story. It’s not that I want emotionless reading, but emotional immersion or “angsty reads” aren’t as enjoyable or important to me as they seem to some readers. I don’t like feeling that “dark” situations, like the bullying, abuse, and poverty in Eleanor & Park, are not in a story primarily to illuminate those experiences but to amp up emotions for the reader. It’s exploitative.

Eleanor & Park dodged these bullets. I’m not sure I can even explain how. I breathlessly turned pages, worried for these two. About 30 pages from the end, I felt like throwing up. On a more positive note, their growing love, and yes, their desire for each other, are palpable, but I never felt like a voyeur.

One secret is what John Green calls the novel’s “observational precision and richness.” These characters seemed real. Eleanor’s poverty, and the claustrophobia of a household where you can’t escape the person you fear, are vividly realized: she and her four siblings share one bedroom in their tiny house; her mother and abusive stepfather share the other. The terrified kids huddle together in their room listening to the yelling and hitting. Invited to babysit for her neglectful dad’s new stepchild, Eleanor stuffs toothbrushes and soap down her pants, because there aren’t any at home. This book is heart-breaking because it reminds privileged readers like me that children live in these circumstances and gives a sense of what that life is like; it doesn’t paint the circumstances so readers can wallow in heartbreak.

Another key to the book’s success is the dual point of view, which helps to keep the characters from becoming larger-than-life, dreamy romance hero and heroine. Eleanor sees Park as heroic and utterly desirable, with a perfect family life; from his point of view, we see that his dad has made him feel he can’t be boy/man enough, and find him thinking that “he kept finding new pockets of shallow inside himself. He kept finding new ways to betray [Eleanor].” Eleanor hates her body, Park loves it and describes her as “Betty Boop drawn with a heavy hand.” (Eleanor is fat, but just what that means is hard to say. Rowell doesn’t let us draw a clear line that “fat” is on the other side of). I think the perspective provided by the often rapidly-shifting points of view (they’re indicated with headers) allowed me to read sensual kissing and hand-holding without feeling gross. I understood Eleanor and Park’s emotions, I remembered having some of them myself at sixteen, but I felt for them, not with them.

Eleanor & Park is emotionally intense: frightening, heart-breaking and joyful. But it stays on the right side of melodrama for me. It’s romantic, but it’s not genre romance, except in the sense that the love story is central to the book. The love grows out of the character and circumstances of Park and Eleanor; their characteristics and lives aren’t backdrop to make the love seem bigger. It may not be the kind of book I’d normally seek out, but I’m glad I didn’t pass it by.

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11 Responses to Eleanor & Park & Me

  1. willaful says:

    “(Eleanor is fat, but just what that means is hard to say. Rowell doesn’t let us draw a clear line that “fat” is on the other side of).”

    I was very struck by Eleanor’s experiences here, which mirrored my own. I was always the fat kid and it didn’t have much to do with my actual size, but more with my weirdness and crappy clothes, which is also very much the case for Eleanor. Her actual size is pretty much irrelevant, though I was irritated by how she was depicted on the (completely lousy, IMO) original cover.

    You also mention something I didn’t know how to express, which was the difference between this very romantic YA book and YA romance. All I could think of was that this felt like “real” YA to me, but that was insulting and not meaningful. It surprised me very much that some reviewers read it as genre YA romance and dismissed it as typical.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Is that the cover with Park on the bench and the elongated, skinny Eleanor? Yeah, not good. What I was trying to say is that although Eleanor is clearly not a size 2 girl who “feels fat,” the book also shows that how we feel about our bodies isn’t always rooted in reality. I expect a lot of female readers of all ages and sizes can relate to her, but it’s also hard for a reader to draw a line that says “she’s fat & weird but I’m OK.” That’s really important because Eleanor (& Park) is the kind of person who gets Othered, whom we WANT to Other to protect ourselves as normal–that’s Park’s first response to her, in fact. The book explored that so well, I thought.

      I still don’t think I have successfully articulated how this book is “not romance,” though it is romantic (and sexy/sensual). It’s hard to do that without saying it’s “more than” romance, and that isn’t what I mean. There’s nothing wrong with romance, and a lot of issues can be explored within its conventions. Maybe another way to put it is that I could imagine this story with Eleanor making a female friend, and it could do many of–though not all of–the same things. I think the fact that it is a love story matters, and allows her to explore certain aspects of the characters more fully, but the love story isn’t “the point” of the book in the same way it is in romance. You couldn’t reshape a romance into a story of friendship and have a book left. Here, you could.

      • willaful says:

        What you said made perfect sense to me, but of course I came in already feeling that same way, so perhaps it wouldn’t be as clear to another reader.

      • Not Romance is exactly how I would describe most YA’s with strong romances and happy endings. The core of the book is always something besides the love story, even if the romance is used to tell the story as is the case with E&P. The funny thing is that until you mentioned, I used to think of all these YA’s as genre romance, but now I’m looking at them from a different perspective and it all makes a lot of sense. I must go ponder. I think I’ll write that “why I read YA” post I mentioned on twitter.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          You know, that is how I would describe most I have read, too (which is not very many). I wonder if it’s partly the way they get talked about in the romance community that makes me think I won’t like them.

          I know why I read YA: 1. There are great stories written for and about people of all ages, so why limit myself? 2. Young adults are people, and thus their lives are worth reading about.

      • willaful says:

        The really crazy thing is, Rowell says that the original cover had an EVEN SKINNIER ELEANOR and she had to ask them to fatten her up.

      • willaful says:

        I bopped back to this discussion because I’m reading How to Repair a Mechanical Heart and it also gives me that “real YA” feeling, which I’m identifying now as a sense of immersion, almost like reading a really authentic historical.

  2. I’m interested in this book, but I suspect I’ll be the wrong reader for it. I fear I’ll start to feel like a mother, fussing about the emotional and physical safety of one of the main characters, if not both, and that’s really NOT what I turn to books for. I’ve done enough of that in real life. There was a very well-received YA which begins with a teen girl being tortured, and I bounced right off that and it went into the never-want-read pile. I’m sure it’s a good book.

    “… but I still think romance invites us to enter into the characters’ desire for each other. I’m not sure I can explain it more clearly than that. I don’t want that reading experience with teen protagonists. (I’m not saying you’re a pervert if you like YA romance; not everyone has the same reading experience I do. But it makes me feel kind of icky).”

    This observation is interesting to me. Unless a YA or NA romance engages my younger self, I’m not comfortable as a reader. For example, I thought EASY by Tammara Webber was really sensitive to the ages of the two main characters when it came to romance/sex. And I think it’s a big reason why I was drawn into the book. But when I’m reading a book where the protagonists feel eroticized and I feel like their mother, I’m really not having a good reading experience!

    Of course, when that happens is going to vary sharply from reader to reader and book to book. Not to say all books are equal and it’s some strange luck of the draw. And not to say no book is objectively bad for a large group of readers. But reader-book chemistry is a real thing too, and so individual/subjective.

    I struggle with finding NA and YA that I like, and yet I do keep looking, so the genres have something to offer me obviously that I’m not finding elsewhere.

    • willaful says:

      Jorrie, I had that worry at first, especially since my son is having troubles at school right now, but I just got totally sucked in and it was a non-issue. Perhaps because it reminded me so much of my own adolescence and I was living in the past while reading it — which though painful, is also an empowering thing for me to do. I don’t see my life in fiction very often.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was flat-out terrified for Eleanor (in a mother way) at a few points. I deliberately read something else, lighter, at bedtime. So I completely understand.

      Also, when I read in paper, I am an end peeker. I peeked. It helped me deal with the emotion, but didn’t erase them at all. (I make no apologies for this habit).

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