Today provided a thoroughly unsurprising victory to The Son (which I still haven’t read and probably won’t now because of a new reading challenge – stay tuned for more soon) over the very sweet Eleanor & Park. But today, dear readers, you are in for a treat. Instead of my jaded and often ungenerous views on YA, I’ve asked the delightful Veronica for her input on Eleanor & Park.
Oh, being a teenager in love! It is so amazing. And then, when it inevitably ends, it resolutely sucks. Thanks, Rainbow Rowell, for reminding me why I never again want to be so dependent on another person for my own happiness.
I admire Rowell’s fidelity to the all-consuming experience of adolescent love. At all times, Eleanor and Park’s thoughts are concerned with each other. No matter how dramatic their family and school lives may be, their first and most pressing thought is always whether the other is thinking of them, and if so what the nature of their thoughts are. Because the couple are both teenagers, their affections are selfishly oriented, in that they are primarily interested in what the other person thinks about them. This is realistic too – first love is as much about you as it is the other person.
In many respects, it’s a shame we’re not given more information outside the scope of the two protagonists. What private torments are Tina and Steve and their friends escaping from in their boozy, pot-smoking garage? What do Park’s friends really think about his mysterious disappearance for a year while he secretly hangs out with Eleanor? Why can’t Park’s tiny Korean hairdresser mum have a spin off novel (she got upset when Patti Smith appeared on SNL: “Why she want to look like man? It’s so sad.”)? (Edit: I second that, Park’s mum is awesome.) But Eleanor and Park’s bubble only has space for two, and so the book is confined to their rather narrow perspectives.
Eleanor and Park reminded me of Judy Blume’s Forever, that other epic of whirlwind adolescent passion. There’s not much in either book that isn’t coloured or seen solely in terms of how it fits in with the central relationship. Like Forever, Eleanor and Park is suffused with the hallmarks of its the mid-eighties era, and these details – courting via lovingly crafted mix tapes, finagling to call each other on the family phone, and a conspicuous lack of social media and the internet as a presence in these teenagers’ lives – all place their story firmly in the past. Unlike Forever, there are no dirty bits for teenagers to extract some sexual knowledge or thrill from. Not that Eleanor and Park’s love is chaste, but their sexual explorations are only described in nonspecific terms. Rowell patronises her readers with vague references to “reaching second base”. I felt cheated – after such extensive description of the endless tingling nerve-endings provoked by holding hands, I can only imagine how sweet consummation must have been. Sex is notoriously tricky to write about without falling into awkwardness and cliché. The YA genre is particularly guilty on this front because inexperienced sex is awkward and cliché. But it galls me that Rowell cops out when it comes to sexytime, yet is prepared to relay the physical and verbal abuse perpetrated by Eleanor’s revolting stepfather, Richie.
There still seems to me a fundamental inequality in pitting YA books against the year’s best novels. It’s an admirable gesture towards inclusivity, but it fails to accept that YA books are just different from adult novels. We love them dearly, but their scope (specifically in realistic coming-of-age YA, at least) is smaller and its focus more intense. They’re written for a different audience. It’s apples and oranges – but then so is, the comparison of any two books, when you get down to it. These are not quantifiable competitions. I haven’t read The Son, but would it make me cry? Probably not. But it might teach me something new, rather than vividly returning me to the most awkward, excruciating stage of life.
Thank you, Veronica, and make sure to tune in tomorrow for more exciting developments in my ToB coverage.