This is not a book review. I don't want to spend any time talking about the strengths and weaknesses of Rainbow Rowell's writing; though no writer is perfect, right now I don't care about Rowell's imperfections.
What I care about, and what I want you to care about, are her prodigious and unique strengths. The reasons why I love her books, why they stayed with me for months after I read them the first time, and why I was happy to spend half a day re-reading two of them, Fangirl and Eleanor & Park, so they'd be fresh in my mind as I wrote this. Why I could totally sit down sometime in the next two weeks and read them again to get my money's worth before I have to return them to the library.
|I give Rainbow Rowell the full tape-flag treatment.|
1. She goes full Nebraska.
Rowell lives in Nebraska, and so do her characters. Even in her novel Landline, in which the main characters live in the Los Angeles area, they're from Nebraska. Her characters grow up in Omaha or Lincoln, or in tiny western towns, and they go to college at the University of Nebraska, where they have a tendency to fall in love.
I'm not from Nebraska, but it feels like home to me when I read Rowell's books. I have lived most of my adult life just down the road from a land-grant university; going about our daily business, we routinely drive past vast fields subdivided into what I think are grad student turf-grass research plots; paddocks holding flocks of sheep and herds of cows; and the Poultry Teaching and Research Center, which always—always—inspires a tired joke about just what they're teaching the chickens in there. When I was young, and "what are you studying?" was the kind of question you asked new people, the answers included Forestry; Fisheries; and, always my favorite, Swine-Herd Management.
Like Michigan, Nebraska is at least two states: the cities, and the Everything Else. Awhile ago, I was chatting on-line with a friend who lives in the Boston area, and he was asking me what it was like where I live. I described our little suburb. He asked what was to the south. I said, "Farms and small towns." To the east? "Farms and small towns." To the north? "Farms and small towns." To the west? "Land-grant university, declining industrial city...then farms and small towns, all the way to Lake Michigan."
Rowell pulls her characters from both Nebraskas. In Fangirl, Levi is a Range Management major from a ranch in western Nebraska, and Cather is a writer from an Omaha family where word-play is a source of pleasure and connection. Cath finds it hard to accept what she sees as Levi's limitations, cringing when he sends her a text that mis-uses "your." Levi gets mad at Cath when he thinks she's squandering an academic opportunity because it comes so easily to her.
Why this matters is because Rowell gets that people who fall in love are not necessarily alike. Levi and Cath don't fall for each other because they have so much in common; they do it through kindness and compassion, which comes easier for Levi than for Cath. It also matters, this whole Nebraska thing, because Rowell gets that those of us in the vast middle of the country are living important stories and meaningful lives. She doesn't move her kids to New York or Chicago to give them adventures; she lets them live their adventures at home.
2. Rowell gets that young people hurt each other through ignorance and carelessness more often than through malice.
In Fangirl, Levi says to Cath, "I'm not really a book person." She replies, "That's the most idiotic thing I've ever heard you say." Forty or so pages later, Levi is anxious because he hasn't been able to read the book for an English test and the friend who is supposed to help him study, Cath's roommate Reagan, has forgotten. Cath cannot fathom the idea that Levi is unable to read a book . "I've never finished a book," he tells her. "I can read. I just can't read books."
"So pretend it's a really long street sign and muddle through it," she tells him, and he replies, "Jesus. What have I ever done to make you be so mean to me?"
Cather's not being mean on purpose; she loves books so much and finds the written word so congenial that she simply can't imagine it being different for Levi. Not to read books is a moral failing, and so is studying with a friend in the hope of being able to pass a test in Young Adult Literature without actually reading the book.
A few pages later, she apologizes to him. "I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't realize we were having a serious conversation until we were."
This is how it really happens, in my experience. As young people step out into the world, they encounter all kinds of things they've never had to be aware of before. In Cath's case, it's Levi's learning disability. In Eleanor & Park, Park grows up in a comfortable middle-class home where the furniture matches the curtains, and he doesn't understand at first that he might actually put Eleanor in danger if he shows up at her house and Eleanor's step-father finds out about him, that she resists letting him write down his phone number for her because she has to protect everything that matters to her from Richie and can't risk Richie seeing the number and wondering about it. Later, Park can't deny it when Eleanor says that she embarrasses him. He loves her, but when he sees her through the eyes of other kids at school, or his mother, or even himself when he first met her, it bothers him. He is ashamed of this, but can't just make it go away. He struggles with it.
3. Rowell writes girls who are strong and awesome even when they're flawed.
Rainbow Rowell has a talent for loving her characters, even the not very likable ones, and she recognizes that people can be awesome and messed up at the same time. I especially like Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl, as an example of this. Cath has anxiety severe enough that she begins her freshman year of college with a plan to live on peanut butter and protein bars for as long as she can, so as to avoid the terrors of the dorm cafeteria. She has an identical twin, Wren, whom she has decided is the pretty one, and Wren's decision to room apart at college has left Cath feeling rejected and unmoored.
It's not hard to see why people like Cath: she's funny, smart, and cuter than she thinks she is, though, to be fair, her roommate Reagan ultimately befriends her from pity. "I feel sorry for you, and I'm going to be your friend," Reagan says. Cath replies, "I don't want to be your friend. I like that we're not friends." Reagan says, "Me, too. I'm sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic."
More important to me, though, is that Cath is a freaking expert at setting boundaries. Early in the book, she comes home to find Levi waiting outside her door. She's met him once, when he was in the room with Reagan the day she arrived at school, and he assumes that Cath will let him in to wait for Reagan to get home. She doesn't. She tells him, "I can't just let strange guys into my room. I don't even know your name."
She just wants to be alone, but she's also resistant to the kind of social pressure that would lead many, if not most, of us, to let him in, even if it made her uncomfortable.
Her golden moment comes later in the book though, after their first kiss. A few days after she and Levi kiss for the first time, she sees him kissing someone else at a party. They eventually have this conversation about it:
"Cath..." he said. "I'm so sorry.
She wasn't quite sure what he was apologizing for. He looked up at her, from the top of his eyes, looking genuinely sorry—and sorry for her. "It was just a kiss," he said, pleating his forehead.
"Which one?" she asked.
Levi pushed his hands to the back of his head, and his bangs fell loose. "Both of them."
Cath took a deep, shaky breath and let it break out through her nose. "Right," she said. "That is, um... good information to have."
"I didn't think—"
"Levi." She cut him off and looked him straight in the eye, trying to look stern despite her tears. "I can't thank you enough for bringing me [to the hospital]. But I couldn't mean this more: I'd like it if you left now. I don't just kiss people. Kisses aren't...just with me. That's why I've been avoiding you. That's why I'd like to avoid you now."
This is awesome. Her insecurity about her attractiveness, and a desire to save face, could easily lead her to pretend that kissing him was casual for her as well, or to decide that even if he was less invested than she was, she should keep seeing him anyway. She doesn't do that. She tells him the truth, and she gives him the boot.
4. Rowell's other characters are also complicated
With the exception of Eleanor's stepfather Richie, who is a straight-up bad guy, Rowell writes characters who have complicated strengths and weaknesses, who are both compassionate and prejudiced, whose love is not always an easy gift to receive. I especially like Park's parents, Mindy and Jamie. Late in the book, Park reflects that he has never been sure his father loves him; Park is slender, punk, a little effeminate. Even after he starts dating Eleanor, he still wonders if he might be gay. On the other hand, he thinks, it's obvious his parents love each other.
The relationship between Mindy and Jamie is a real strength of this novel. Mindy, who came to the US from Korea as a young woman to marry Jamie, values order and niceness to such a degree that she finds Eleanor, who is fat, dresses strangely, has a sarcastic sense of humor, and for a good half of the book doesn't even own a toothbrush, almost unbearable. Jamie, on the other hand, likes a certain kind of manliness; to be a pussy is just about the worst thing he can think of. Park, sadly, is kind of a pussy.
Mindy and Jamie each keep the family on-track by pushing each other aside and taking over when they have to. When Mindy starts ranting about Eleanor, saying she is not welcome to come to the house again, Jamie shoos Park outside, and comes out a bit later to say that Mindy has re-thought things and Eleanor is welcome. When Park discovers he likes wearing eyeliner, and his father is angry and disgusted with him, trying to force him to wash it off before school, Mindy vetoes him. "You tell me Park all grown up now, almost man, make own decisions. So let him make own decisions. Let him go."
It doesn't fix things; Jamie doesn't speak to Park again for weeks. But it lets Park be himself and it prevents Jamie from breaking things irrevocably. Jamie and Mindy do this for each other again and again.
5. Rowell accepts that she can't save her characters from unsolvable problems.
This is true in Fangirl, in which Cath and Wren come from a family touched by mental illness and abandonment in ways that can't be fixed with an epiphany on page 247. It's true most heart-rendingly when Eleanor and her four younger siblings talk about the possibility of Eleanor leaving home.
"I can't take you with me," she said, "if that's what you're thinking."
"Why not?" Ben said. "We'll just hang out with the other kids."
"There are no other kids," Eleanor said. "It's not like that."
"You don't care about us," Maisie said.
"I do care," Eleanor hissed. "I just can't...help you."6. Rowell wrote a fat girl. An actual fat girl. Who fell in love and was loved without needing a makeover.
And Rowell insists, when people ask, that yes, Eleanor is actually fat. I'll let Rowell speak for herself on the subject.
Edited to add: Another nice touch is that Park's attraction to Eleanor is actively due, in part, to his appreciation of her specific body. The scene where he sees her in her too-tight gym uniform at school and is overwhelmed by this glimpse of her body, and by the possibilities of the long zipper down the front of the uniform, is so nicely done. This is to say, Park isn't attracted to Eleanor despite her weight. Her body, exactly as it is, is beautiful and exciting to him.
7. Rowell is a master of the slow build.
Rainbow Rowell is especially talented at describing how love and attraction grow. She's not in any hurry. Nobody is struck dumb at first sight by the beauty of their beloved; nobody falls head-over-heels in a weekend. They might like each other, but they have to get to know each other. In Eleanor and Park's case, Park is horrified by Eleanor when she gets on the school bus for the first time, and isn't sure he has enough social capital to survive letting her share his seat. They warm up to each other slowly. Very slowly. Their relationship begins with him realizing that Eleanor is reading his comic books over his shoulder on their bus rides, and him deciding to read a bit more slowly to be sure she can keep up. It's the very definition of tentative. By the time her characters fall in love, you really get why they've fallen in love.
8. Rowell knows how to write about sexual attraction.
Part of the slow build in Eleanor & Park is the two of them discovering their attraction to each other. Rowell writes this beautifully. The book alternates between Park and Eleanor's points of view, and when their attraction comes to a head, Rowell gives us a masterful little tennis volley between the two of them:
[Park] laughed again. His face completely changed when he laughed. He didn't have dimples, exactly, the the sides of his face folded in on themselves, and his eyes almost disappeared.
"Just wait," he said.
That morning, in English, Park noticed that Eleanor's hair came to a soft red point on the back of her neck.
That afternoon, in history, Eleanor noticed that Park chewed on his pencil when he was thinking. And that the girl sitting behind him—what's her name, Kim, with the giant breasts and the orange Esprit bag—obviously had a crush on him.And later, there is another exchange of quick observations like these:
Park was just her height, but he seemed taller.
Eleanor's eyelashes were the same color as her freckles.9. Rowell's girls are interested in sex.
I can't tell you how many young adult novels I've read in which sexual activity takes place in a kind of fuzzy place where a girl doesn't quite understand what's happening and isn't clear about her own volition or desire to be there. Have I ever read a young adult novel, before Rowell, in which girls look at boys with hunger, and crave touch? If I have, I don't remember it.
Thank God for Rainbow Rowell. Her girls are sexually interested in the boys they like, and whatever hesitation her characters have about sex is not about virginity or purity or sluttiness or reputation. Eleanor's attraction to Park is so strong and earthy that she is repeatedly taken with the desire to bite him. "You're so pretty, and so good," she tells him on the phone one night. "And you make me feel like a cannibal." Another time she thinks to herself, "Don't bite his face. It's disturbing and needy and never happens in situation comedies or movies that end with big kisses."
Here is one of my favorite passages, from early on, when they're completely overwhelmed because they're holding hands for the first time:
Like something had gone wrong beaming her onto the Starship Enterprise.
If you've ever wondered what that feels like, it's a lot like melting—but more violent.
Even in a million different pieces, Eleanor could still feel Park holding her hand. Could still feel his thumb exploring her palm. She sat completely still because she didn't have any other option. She tried to remember what kind of animals paralyzed their prey before they ate them...
Maybe Park had paralzyed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her.
That would be awesome.When she sees Park in eyeliner for the first time, in the salon his mother runs out of their garage, Eleanor loves how it makes him look. The next day, when she sees him wearing it in the wild for the first time, she's overwhelmed:
When Eleanor got on the bus, she was in a good mood. "You're here! I thought maybe you were sick when you weren't at my corner." He looked up at her. She looked surprised, then sat down quietly and looked at her hands.
"Do I look like one of the Solid Gold dancers?" he asked finally, when he couldn't take any more quiet.
"No," she said, sidelong glancing, "you look..."
"Unsettling?" he asked.
She laughed and nodded.
"Unsettling, how?" he asked her.
She kissed him with tongue. On the bus.Edited to add: the girls in Rowell's books make different decisions about sexual activity, and none of them are presented as wrong, or bad, or damaging. In Fangirl, for instance, Cath is inexperienced, but her sister Wren has had sex with at least one high school boyfriend, and at least one college boyfriend. Reagan and Levi slept together while dating in high school; part of why they broke up was that Reagan, in her own words, kept cheating on Levi. But now, a couple of years later, they're good friends, and Reagan routinely dates multiple boys. This is refreshing.
9. I don't think Rainbow Rowell is afraid of the queer reading. God knows I'm not.
Back in January, when I read Eleanor & Park for the first time, I kind of live-blogged it on Facebook. Here's what I wrote:
Today's book is Eleanor & Park, which is very good and chock-full of feelings in a way that is going to leave me pretty well wrecked, I can tell already.
Have there ever before been two protagonists before who fell in love while arguing over whether the X-men comics are sexist or not? Probably not. It's awesome.
I'm really hard on books. Books that get ecstatic reviews seem to me like they suck. Books I like are often nonetheless part-sucky. So when I'm reading a book I think is amazing it's a really intense and kind of overwhelming experience. There's good evidence Eleanor & Park is going to break my heart. I hope David and the Tiny Tornado bought ice cream and/or chocolate at the grocery store.
Eleanor & Park is very close in tone, plot, and story beats to this really terrific Steve/Bucky high school AU fanfic I read awhile ago, with Eleanor as Bucky and Park as Steve. A little weird to be thinking, "I haven't read anything as good as this award-winning national bestseller since that one fanfic." But there you have it.
I think Rainbow Rowell knows about uncanny proto-queer magnetism. Eleanor and Park are totally playing out the story of a boy and girl who are into each other in part because of this unspoken queerness they both have. Especially given that it's set in the 80s. The music, the comics, the faggy boyfriend... So familiar.
Park's beautician mom has just put eyeliner on Park, and Eleanor can't look away from how pretty it makes him. One of the things this book is about is how a relationship between a boy and a girl can still be queer. It's awesome.
Park wears eyeliner to school the next day. Eleanor loves it. Reviews I've seen call this a story of "misfits" in love. Misfits seems to me like code for a word they either don't know because they don't see what I see, or that they're uncomfortable using.
"Surely," I think, "I can't be the first person to notice Eleanor & Park is a queer romance." So I google and find lots of people explaining very earnestly that Park is totally not gay and one of the great things about the book is how stereotype-busting the heterosexual leads are. I don't know these kids' sexual orientations. But whatever they are, "heterosexual" does not begin to cover it.
Heart only semi-broken. I think my head-canon that these kids are some kind of queer means they can't really figure themselves out until they're apart and away from Omaha.
Because David is a lovely guy, he patiently listened to me tell him all about Eleanor & Park, and how I imagine the story might go on. Eleanor's in Minneapolis by the end. Meaning she is in one of the many midwestern towns that somehow became hotbeds of amazing lesbian culture from the 70s through the 90s: the twin cities, Iowa City, even right here in Lansing. Eventually she must find her way to Amazon Bookstore, right? How could she not? Maybe she forges a bi identity; maybe she can't hold out against the pressure to just be a dyke for the next decade or so. Park wants her to come back to Omaha, and she misses him, but she's smart and a realist: she knows she's better off where she is. Park doesn't do too bad in Omaha. He's already in touch with what Eleanor called an Omaha she never imagined: the punk record shop, the coffeeshops, the part of town where neither of them seem as out of place as they do at the high school. He goes to college, maybe at Nebraska or one of the lesser Ivies. He's on his way to class one day and there's a flyer for the campus gay & lesbian group masking-taped to the door of the building. He doesn't want to stand there to write down the info, so he pulls the flyer down and takes it with him, and he goes to the next meeting, and there you have it. He graduates, heads to grad school in New York or San Francisco. It's not even special. This is what we all did back in the 80s. The Midwestern Queer Kids version of the Game of Life.(If you don't care for my queer reading of the book, that's OK but I don't need to hear about it. I had some things to say on the subject of queer readings recently. And I am 100% sure that Rainbow Rowell would approve of my notional explicitly queer fan mix of her wonderful novel. As Cath says about Simon and Baz, "When I write them, they're gay.")