Monday, November 18, 2013

Eleanor & Park: Preferable to The Scarlet Letter

I can't remember how I heard about Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, but somehow I did. At the time I didn't know it was a Young Adult (YA) novel. Nothing about it suggested that it was a YA novel other than the fact that the main characters are teenagers.  I had picked it up on a whim and it wasn't in the YA section of the bookstore.

I only found out it was a YA novel when a "mom" who is "also a librarian" told me it was. At first I thought she was mistaken because she had never heard of Daniel Handler, nor his alter-ego, Lemony Snicket. What kind of librarian has never heard of Daniel Handler? (Answer: Librarian Moms Who Live In The Suburbs.) But then I looked it up and found out that not only was it a YA novel, but it was a smutty, evil, banned YA novel! In that case I had to read it!

YA novels and I never really got along. Here is an incomplete list of the YA novels I read between the ages of 12 and 17, including what I thought of the books at the time:
  • Everything Ever Written By Judy Bloom: That was fun! But why did her menstrual pads need a belt?
  • Ask Anybody by Constance C Greene: What does "Meet you at the laundromat, bring suds" mean? 
  • I Was a 15-Year-Old Blimp by Patti Stren: So don't become bulimic? Got it! 
  • After The Bomb by Gloria D. Miklowitz: I'm not sleeping for the next 10years, thankyouverymuch.
  • Some random book with "Love" in the title: Don't have sex because the guy will cheat on you? Um...that doesn't sound quite right, but OK? Maybe not. This sounds fishy.
  • Nancy Drew reboot books: Her friend the athlete sounds hot, but man these books suck.
  • A bunch of survival books mostly centred around boys who seem to be having sex with hot chicks: Hey this book has a chapter titled "Post-Coitus"! This is much better! I wonder if there are more of these in the library...There are! Awesome!
YA novels were pretty boring, and they tended to be moralizing. I preferred my mom's Agatha Christie novels, and my dad's Isaac Asimov novels over most YA novels (with the notable exception of Foundation's Edge, which was the dullest book ever).

After a while, I also realized that YA novels were incredibly poorly-written. YA, trash, and science fiction/fantasy all suffer from the problems of excessive exposition, poor character development, and shoehorned endings. They aren't your best books.  This is probably why your teen will usually move from YA to trash, or YA to scifi/fantasy before reading something that's actually good.

Unless they never read anything actually good and instead contribute to the popularity of 50 Shades of Shit.

But I digress.

Eleanor&Park isn't that kind of YA novel. It's better written than most books you run into in the "regular" lit genre, and the plot is neither moralizing nor saccharine.  And yes, there is swearing because teenagers swear. I hated those YA novels (and Teen TV Shows) where teens didn't swear or talk to each other in ways that they'd never be caught dead talking to their parents. Like, really, your teens are going to talk like characters out of Leave It To Beaver, and yet learn Important Lessons about why you shouldn't drink? I don't think so. (Can I just take a moment to hate Degrassi Jr High? Thank you.)

The story of Eleanor&Park isn't anything that hasn't been covered on A Very Special Episode of Any Teen Show (I'm pretty sure some '80s sitcoms even covered this). Eleanor is a kinda chubby misfit from a bad family. She's new in town, and the local kids pick on her. Her stepfather is an abusive asshole who's kicked her out once before and now makes her life hell. She has no place where she feels safe. Fortunately, though, she meets Park, who's also kind of a misfit. He's half Korean. His father looks like Tom Selleck, but he doesn't. He does martial arts, but loves comics and post-punk rock.

Eleanor and Park fall in teen-love and Park defends Eleanor against the raging lunatic haters in the school, and, ultimately, against her raging lunatic stepfather.

Of course, all good things must come to an end and so does Eleanor and Park's relationship.

It's a really cute book. Some parents may get their knickers in a knot because the book describes Eleanor and Park's make-out sessions, but personally I'd be more upset if I caught my kid reading Ender's Game, A Game of Thrones, or anything by Piers Anthony.

Or Dune. No kid should ever read Dune.

Actually, no one should read Dune. Ugh.

The one thing that did annoy me a bit about Eleanor&Park was that each chapter alternates between Eleanor and Park's points-of-view, and Rainbow Rowell isn't skilled enough as a writer to pull that off. You can't really tell without reading the title who's point-of-view you're seeing. Eventually I just stopped paying attention to it and let it go. Had this book been as dead inside as The Help, it would have gotten me mad, but fortunately this book has soul. Rainbow Rowell can do emotion without being melodramatic about it.

I want to end on a small note about what my school thought was appropriate teen reading. When I was 13, I had to read The Scarlet Letter for school. I'm sure you know what The Scarlet Letter is about, but in case you don't, here's a quick synopsis:
Hester Prynn is a Puritan living in Massachusetts in 16-something. She's married to some guy she's never met and who hasn't arrived from England yet. Hester gives birth to a baby who is, obviously, not her husband's. The father is the town reverend. Instead of coming clean, the asshole hides the fact that he's the kid's father. Sure he asks Hester to out him, but really dude's a giant coward. Meanwhile Hester's husband arrives, but nobody knows who he is. He proceeds to make everyone's life a living hell because he's that kind of asshole. Everyone goes about their miserable lives feeling guilty for prettymuch everything until they die. The book is a thick, joyless read, full of Piles of Evil. 
If I had to chose whether to let my thirteen year old read Eleanor&Park or The Scarlet Letter, I'd fucking choose Eleanor&Park any day of the week.  At least in Eleanor&Park neither Eleanor nor Park are cowards, and it's pretty damned clear that the assholes making everyone's life hell are the bad guys.

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