Young adult novels have left a sour taste in the mouth since the debut of “Twilight” and seem to contain the same boring formula for telling the same boring story.
Boy meets girl, girl meets boy. Boy and girl deal with an existential crisis. They bond over mutual misery. Girl breaks boy’s heart. Boy saves girl from life-threatening situation. Boy and girl fall in love and ride off into the sunset.
These stories are becoming redundant, let’s admit it. Vampires are an embarrassing thing of the past, and everyone has moved on.
It might be surprising that some adults read a lot of young adult fiction. One might speculate adults enjoy reading these books because it recaptures some part of their youth. It’s because some of the bravest, most “adult” storytelling is happening in the young adult space. Those who claim young adult books only exist to play off adult nostalgia have never read a young adult book.
Young adult fiction isn’t just about selling books to teenagers. It’s about writing books that talk about their problems, which are often very mature matters. Problems like sex, drinking and drugs are part of a teenager’s reality. This isn’t suggesting every teenager has sex, drinks or does drugs—only that those subjects exist in plain sight to them.
For the 16-year-old boy and girl in Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park,” family abuse, school bullying and defying society’s standards of the perfect high school love story are as real as the stars.
Eleanor is not what one would call naturally pretty. She’s a little too chubby, her clothes are a little too strange, and her hair is wild and bright red. She’s new to town, and she immediately becomes the butt of the cool kids’ jokes on her first day of school.
Park, who grew up in the predominantly white town, is half Korean and has never quite felt as though he belongs. He grudgingly allows Eleanor to take the seat next to him on the bus when nobody will give her a place to sit.
At this point, the book captured my attention in it’s small touches of defiance against the standard romance formula. I liked seeing Eleanor and Park go out of their way initially to ignore each other, thinking the other wasn’t noticing.
Park reads comics every day on the bus, and he begins to notice Eleanor reading along over his shoulder. Hearts of readers begin to flutter when Park starts flipping pages more slowly, giving Eleanor time to read the whole thing.
He finally gives in to his better judgement and lends the comics to her for a night. They enter into whispered conversations on the bus about the comics bringing new life to Eleanor’s drab existence with superheroes and the best of ’80s pop culture.
I don’t usually believe in young love. But, as a reader, you will begin to hope these two crazy kids make it, despite their real world difficulties. With two strongly written characters like Eleanor and Park, Rowell shows us the beauty in the broken.
Something Rowell, and nearly all modern young adult novelists, is able to inhibit is she doesn’t overly romanticize the relationship, yet she doesn’t attempt to diminish the character’s feelings, either.
A scene after Park air kicks a football player on the bus for taunting Eleanor is unforgettable because of these words he says to her: “I want to be the last person who ever kisses you…Nothing before you counts, and I can’t even imagine an after.”
Reading “Eleanor and Park” almost made me believe these kids had once been old high school friends of mine. You alternate between their perspectives, providing the best front-row seat experience to a love story with no vampires, no unnecessary fluff and a little bit of reality.
“Eleanor and Park” made me feel like I had to keep going until the end—and then, when I got there, I wished it hadn’t come quite so soon. This is one of those stories that will leave your heart a little tender and bruised, but not regretting turning the first page.