And I love LOVE LOVE Rainbow Rowell. I want to be her friend. I want to be her characters' friend. I want to read everything she has written and then make everyone I know read it just so I can tell them that they are wrong if they have even the slightest criticism. (I'm joking. Kind of.)
Rowell keeps me up reading until the early morning, which wouldn't be all that remarkable except for the fact that she does it without a break neck plot. I don't want to find out what happens, I just want to keep hanging out with Eleanor. And Park (ohmygodPark). And Cath. These characters that she's created that are so much like me and so much like everyone I know; they are endearing almost to the point of annoyance because I can't figure out how to get such flawed characters to be so damn likable.
Eleanor & Park tells the story of two high schoolers who just don't quite fit. Eleanor is poor, and lives in an abusive home; Park is an Asian boy in love with New Wave in a white neighborhood that's slightly behind the times. It sounds like it could veer into the cliche, but the characters are so strong and the scenes so mesmerizing that it feels like a brand new story.
In this case, I thought I might be slightly biased in my immense enjoyment. I too once fell in love over music, while listening to many of the same songs that bonded these two. At every mention of The Smiths or Joy Division, I was back in my Chuck Taylors, tapping my toes on a dirty car floor mat, wondering how long everything would last. I couldn't help but become enamored with this book. John Green might have said it best (as he usually does), though, with this: "Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it's like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it's like to be young and in love with a book."
Beyond the music though, I'm sure all readers can identify with the feeling of being out of place and sometimes helpless. Eleanor deals with these feelings with such strength--not with grace, necessarily, and also not with strength in the heroic sense, but pure human resilience to a terrible, terrible situation.
(Side note: I don't want to go off on a pro-reading, stop-banning-my-favorite-books tangent, but there are people who are trying to ban this book because of the sometimes graphic and "profane" language. To those people I say this: This book is important, your teenagers already know those words, and you should be happy they are reading something with such quiet literary merit. Stop taking their books away and just realize that the world is not always a wonderful place, but stories like this make it beautiful. Thanks.)
Fangirl is Rowell's second major YA offering last year, and while the plot is even less dramatic than that of Eleanor & Park, it is equally charming. It tells the story of Cath, a fanfic writer of a fictional and thinly-veiled Harry Potter/Twilight-esque series, and her struggle to thrive in her first year of college. Away from home for the first time in her life, and suddenly abandoned by her twin sister, Cath retreats into a world of social anxiety and gay fanfic. Really, really wonderful stuff here.
Everything is messy, everyone makes mistakes that we all make, and they only sort of get cleaned up. It's college how many of us lived it--without the sororities and the costume parties and the Solo cups, but with plenty of self doubt and discovery.
Rowell has become my YA gateway author of choice. You think you don't like YA because you're an adult and you only like adult books, try not to fall in love with Eleanor & Park. I just don't think it's possible.