Review: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

CoverPublished on ReadKiddoRead.com, May 2013.

In this convincing chronicle of first love set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986, Rainbow Rowell introduces the reader to two high school students, Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is an outsider. She’s the new girl in town: redhead, tall, complex, and abundantly sarcastic; Park is the unwitting, low-key, average guy at school.

When the two first meet on the bus, they hardly speak; though slowly but surely they begin to fall for one another. From stealing first glances, to cryptic conversations about anything other than what they’re really feeling, to sharing the intimate details of their lives, Eleanor and Park find their way to navigating life together. Readers will follow Eleanor and Park through all of the agonizing rites of passage in a typical American high school: gym class, school cafeterias, bullying, riding the bus to school, and finding a niche and group of friends, but they will really get to know the characters through their lives at home.

This is where Eleanor’s narrative really steals the spotlight. Her step-dad is physically and verbally abusive, while her mother – a shadow of who she could be – just tries to keep the peace. Rowell grounds Eleanor’s home life in the everyday details of a young woman struggling to get by… and just barely managing to do so. You can’t help but admire Eleanor whose simultaneous vulnerability and strength is harrowing, striking, and sad.

By comparison, Park has things easy. He has an overbearing father, an embarrassingly-stereotypical (to his mind) Korean mother, and importantly, a stable home life – a stark contrast to Eleanor’s experience. As Eleanor and Park grow closer and the disparate elements of their lives become intertwined, their differences put their newfound relationship to the test.

Ultimately, this is a story of two people finding each other, then finding themselves. It’s a story of growing together and growing apart, all at the same time. Readers will be asking: how could it possibly work out between them? Then again, how could it not?

ELEANOR & PARK will leave readers desperately rooting for both characters, with all the immediacy and intensity of first love found in many young adult novels. Though the premise may sound like a familiar boy-meets-girl/girl-meets-boy story, this novel is anything but common. Rowell’s spot-on writing and tone provide a nuanced look at how one person can enter your life and undoubtedly change it forever.­

ELEANOR & PARK received the 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor and a 2014 Boston-Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction.

Learn more about Rainbow Rowell at www.rainbowrowell.com, or follow her on Twitter, @rainbowrowell.

AWP Recap, Day 3

You may notice, quite conspicuously, that there is no “AWP Recap, Day 2.”

Snow 3-8-13

Let me summarize for you.

Welcome to Boston in March. All the AWP-goers certainly got the real New England experience…. I hated to bow out of attending on Friday, but the thought of trudging a mile in snow that was coming down sideways, followed by sitting in a cold conference center for a five hours just didn’t hold much appeal for me.

But then there was Saturday. Read on for highlights!

Write Where You Know

Jennifer Haigh and Richard Russo answered questions and shared conversation about the ways their writing reflects a sense of place. To be honest, one of the best parts of this panel was how the authors held each other in such high mutual respect.

Both spoke about memory and nostalgia, and how our experience of a place changes over time. The way we experience a place as a child is different than the way we experience it as an adult.

Jennifer Haigh spoke of leaving her childhood hometown and moving to Boston, and the way that she alternates between places in her writing, as though constantly escaping from one place to another. There’s a sense of wanting and needing to document life in a small town America that is rapidly disappearing. Haigh remarked that it was “a function of growing up in a place where the good days are far behind you…. I have no memory of my town booming, and by the time I was old enough to have a sense of these things, it was already long past.” There is a sense of longing for that past, but in some ways, it is a past that never was, or a past that can only be returned to by writing and recreating. It’s interesting to put into words a sense of yearning to return to something you may never have experienced.

Richard Russo spoke of getting the details right, and the phenomenon of an audience with varied geographic backgrounds seeing themselves in the writing of a particular place. “If you get a detail right,” he says, “a truth reminds you of another truth.” I’m not sure I have any deep philosophical unpacking of that statement other than it sounds true. Perhaps it relates to a common emotional experience evoked by a setting, or perhaps larger ideas of home, having a hometown, or belonging. If you can depict those convincingly in fiction, it strikes a chord with readers who may have experienced or longed for the same thing. As Jennifer Haigh said later in the panel, reading and writing fiction is really an exercise in empathy (quoted below).

In all, it was a pleasure to listen to these two established authors share their experiences and ruminate on their approach to setting.

“One rule as a writer is to never, under any circumstances, try to settle a score.” — Richard Russo.

On inspiration: “I write to make sense of things that trouble me or haunt me.” — Jennifer Haigh.

On finding your writing voice: “I was never going to be who I wanted to be. I could only be who I was.” — Richard Russo.

“Writing fiction, like reading fiction, is a practice in empathy.” — Jennifer Haigh.

Life After the MFA

The next panel I attended featured four writers across varied genres who discussed their experiences post-MFA program: balancing life, work, writing, grants, and all the myriad distractions that can help or hinder your creative writing goals. It was actually just nice to hear people being hopeful and encouraging. We writers can tend to be an angsty bunch when we’re stuck in our own head for too long.

To sum up: having a writing community to spur you on is so, so important. Keep going, keep writing, keep doing your art.

The Contemporary in Historical Fiction for Young Adults

And last, but certainly not the least, was this fantastic panel about historical fiction. Jacqueline Davies, Jeannine Atkins, Pat Lowery Collins, Sarah Lamstein, and Padma Venkatraman gave brief remarks about their historical fiction novels, followed by a teen panel of responses to the works. There were so many gems I’m not even sure where to begin.

Padma Venkatraman spoke so eloquently and passionately about post-colonialism, race, class, and gender equality issues in India. It was truly inspiring, and made me very interested to read her novel, Climbing the Stairs.

Jacqueline Davies discussed the ways in which history tends to repeat itself, and we find patterns and commonality across time and space. Similarly to the first panel I attended in the day, the idea that a common emotional experience can connect people regardless of their background was a recurring theme.

Several panelists brought up the sense of responsibility they felt to get the details right; however, Davies tempered the ideal by saying that not all historical details serve the story equally. If descriptions of place or certain customs and practices distract a modern day reader too much, it can pull them out of the story. In some cases, she prescribes that it may be best to err on the side of fiction, and leave the detail out.

One of the best parts of the panel, to be sure, was the inclusion of five teens from the local Boston Latin School. Man, these teens were smart. I mean, really smart. They had each previously read the author-panelists’ novels, and then discussed them in front of a room full of writers in a reader-response sort of way. It was fascinating to hear how brilliantly they spoke about history coming to life on the page, and how reading historical fiction better prepared them to approach complex moral and emotional issues of the past… issues that inform our present.

It reminded me once again why I feel compelled to write for children and young adults. It’s easy to forget sometimes.

“We’re not writing what really was, but the feeling of what was.” — Jacqueline Davies.

“Poets and novelists writing about history accept gifts from the past.” — Jeannine Atkins.

“Historical novels are about the same emotions that we all feel: regrets, loss…. I don’t think that changes with time.” — Pat Lowery Collins.

In Short (tl;dr)

AWP was inspiring. Overwhelming. Tiring… (even with a day off in between!). But at the end of it all, I feel like I was fed, and it was well worth attending.

I met a lot of people, saw a coworker, caught up with an old friend from my undergrad days, and spent two days surrounded by people all talking about the writing life.

How many ways can you say awesome?