Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Books – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I appear to be keeping on an '80s theme. However, this novel shares little else with my last review, except perhaps my fondness for both novels. This was another one of my random finds: I picked Eleanor & Park off the shelf at Foyles without knowing anything about it, not even that it’s a piece of young adult fiction.

I want to talk about genre and audience for a moment, prompted partly this month’s Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, which was devoted to discussing Young Adult fiction – or ‘Crossover Fiction’, as it’s apparently now known. I somehow managed to miss out on Young Adult fiction when I was actually a ‘young adult’ (by which I mean a teenager; I’m fairly sure I’m still a young adult), because at thirteen or so I went straight from kid’s books to Victorian literature, where genre and age-based audience were somewhat less of a thing. In the last year or so, however, I’ve read and loved The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, and Eleanor & Park. I also reread and rediscovered His Dark Materials, and got much more out of it. According to the SYP magazine, over half the people who buy Young Adult fiction are over eighteen. This doesn’t surprise me, actually, because there are some Young Adult novels that are too good to miss out on simply because I happen to be a few years out of adolescence. I think I count Eleanor & Park as one of these.

Eleanor & Park is essentially a love story. Again, something I don’t read very often. I’m used to Victorian love stories, and subplot love stories. This is a love story about two sixteen year olds: Park, who has spent his life so far ensuring he is invisible, and Eleanor, who finds it impossible to be so. Park is fairly content; Eleanor, new in town and living once more with her terrifying step-father, sharing a bedroom with four younger siblings, is entirely unhappy. They fall in love over Smiths songs, mix-tapes and X-men comics.

It is a lovely book. I mean, it’s not all lovely. There are certain aspects and parts of the story that are anything but lovely. But there are also a lot of moments of the novel that make me smile, and I always consider this a strong quality in books, especially when, as in Eleanor & Park, the novel is equally able to distress you. It makes me smile not just because of the Smiths references (which as a great fan of the Smiths I was thrilled by, especially Eleanor and Park’s alternative interpretations of their lyrics, I am the son/sun and the heir/air). But this book also made me smile because I thought it was saying something both truthful and hopeful about being young, and about being in love.

It’s cheesy in parts, but at least it’s cheesy in a way that shows that both the characters and the writer are aware of the cheesiness, and are slightly mocking it. Eleanor’s sarcasm at least sometimes allowed me to forgive the cheesiness. Similarly, despite the cheesiness their romance never feels unreal; it at times seems a little childish, maybe,  but at fifteen or sixteen the main characters are probably entitled to that.

It was a shame, I thought, that while Eleanor and Park themselves had really strong characterisation, those around them did not. It isn’t exactly that the other characters are poor. They just don’t feel like the creations of the same writer who made the two central characters. Eleanor and Park are entirely 3D. Park’s parents, and Eleanor’s mother and step-father seem half-developed. Their siblings, and the other kids at school, seem fairly 2D to me. This disappointed me, because I was keen to know more about Mouse, Maisie, Ben, Josh, DeNice, Beebi, Cal, Tina, Steve, and all the others. I also feel more time could have been spent trying to understand Eleanor’s mother, her situation, and why she hasn’t left Richie sooner. This is touched upon, but never explored. Obviously this is Eleanor and Park’s story, but it would have been nice to feel that those around them were human characters like them, rather than figures simply in the background of the story on hand.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t lessen the strong portraits of Eleanor and Park themselves. They feel real, and their relationship, or at least their emotions with regards to their relationship, feels real too. You read about them and believe they’re actually in love.

I almost think older readers might get more out of Eleanor & Park. I somehow think the book might be less poignant if you read it when you’re actually sixteen. At least, I imagine the novel reads differently for a sixteen year old and a twenty-one year old, because in a way it’s more a book about being sixteen and in love than it is a book about being in love. So it’s a Young Adult novel because it’s about being young, about growing up. But it’s more than a Young Adult novel, because if you’re past the age of the characters you still get that essence of youth from the novel. It’s hard to explain what I mean here, because it’s an abstract feeling I got from the book. Let’s see. For example, in The Fault in Our Stars (being the only other Young Adult love story I have to compare it to), you always know their time together is probably limited by illness. In Eleanor & Park you feel their time together is limited simply because of their age, because few people end up forever with someone they meet at fifteen or sixteen. And because I imagine you’re slightly less aware of that at fifteen or sixteen, when you feel strangely old, Eleanor & Park might have a little more poignancy for older readers.

Greatest strength: The small details of the way they fall in love, sitting on a school bus, her reading comics over his shoulder. It’s just a really beautiful image.

Greatest weakness: It would have been nice to have those around Eleanor and Park more strongly characterised.

Let’s finish on a quote: He put his pen in his pocket, then took her hand and held it to his chest for a minute. It was the nicest thing she could imagine. It made her want to have his babies and give him both of her kidneys.

Next week: Northanger Abbey (the new, updated, Austen Project version), by Val McDermid   

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