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.