With Thanksgiving approaching, I’m taking a look each day at a different author I’m grateful for as part of what I’m calling Thanksreading. Last year I did the same thing, but with a focus on specific books I’m thankful for. (You can find those pieces here.)
On to day two of Thanksreading …
It doesn’t take much for the arteries of memory to get clogged up with the plaque of cynicism, pessimism, and skewed perspective. Angry words spoken between friends, the broken hearts that come with young love, the “wisdom” of age … these are all things that make it difficult to recall there might’ve actually been some bright spots in our teenage years.
Fortunately, there are authors like Rainbow Rowell to remind us that this is, in fact, the case.
There’s a scene in Rowell’s first young adult (YA) novel, Eleanor & Park, in which the titular characters’ English class is discussing why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a popular literary achievement after four centuries. I sure as hell couldn’t figure it out when I read it in Mr. Bohn’s freshman English class.
But Park, one of the book’s main characters, has a suggestion: “Because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?”
I’ll leave that to simmer for bit and move on.
I discovered Rowell’s work thanks to my daughter, who was 16 when she recommended Eleanor & Park to me. I was aware of Rowell thanks to the incredibly positive buzz being generated by her then-new novel, Carry On, so I was excited to read her stuff.
At the time, I was just beginning the third act of my first novel, the YA/sci-fi/paranormal tale that I’m now revising for an editorial assessment next month. I was firmly entrenched in the idea that I DID NOT NEED a love interest for my young hero. I mean, that’s just such a cliché, and how great would it be to have a YA novel without that kind of baggage?
The answer: I don’t know.
Because by the time I was halfway through Eleanor & Park, I was so in love with young love that I wound up creating a love interest for my main character, and she ended up being my favorite character – not to mention quite a pivotal one – in my novel.
It’s not that the relationship shared between Rowell’s characters is filled with sunshine and roses. Quite the opposite. But it’s also a story of teenage love that is built on the delightful quotidian of learning about falling in love and what that feels like. How every little new detail was exciting and mind-blowing.
And the importance of mix tapes. How did courting take place in the days before mix tapes? It’s a mystery lost to the ages, I guess.
Anyway, Rowell’s words transported me back to high school bus rides home from Lamoille Union High School my sophomore year, debating if now was a good time to hold my first girlfriend’s hand. Or maybe now? Or how about now? I recalled the squishy queasiness that accompanied making such a life-altering decision.
The novel also brought back the adult problems my high school sweetheart and I confronted, how we tried to navigate them with kid brains and unpolished skills. That particular rush of memories was both hopeful and heartbreaking, and it made the ending of Eleanor & Park nothing but perfect.
Which brings me back to the Shakespeare question and Rowell’s response via her character, Park.
I think it’s right on. I didn’t realize it, but there’s a lot of stuff we cover up about our teenage years that isn’t cringe-worthy or terrible. We just let the bad stuff obscure everything else. And I’m so thankful to Rowell for reminding me of that. For giving me back the magical sense memories that accompany growing up and learning about being in love.
She’s also really good at doing this for me from a parental perspective.
Fangirl, Rowell’s follow-up to Eleanor & Park, brought up a whole other slew of long-forgotten memories, as well as present-day anxiety, for me. The story of a young woman starting college, I started reading it just as my daughter was planning last spring for early college. Basically spending her senior year of high school as a college freshman. At my alma mater no less.
The issues confronting Cath, the novel’s main character, brought back my own situation as a college freshman, dealing with anxiety and depression, and it made me worry about my daughter. I ended up putting Fangirl down for about four months before finishing it.
And when I did, I loved it in a completely different way from how I loved Eleanor & Park.
Right now I have Carry On and Wayward Son, Rowell’s two most recent novels, sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for a weekend with nothing to do. On that weekend, I shall sneak up on those unsuspecting books and read the hell out of them.
The reductionist summary of these two works is “gay Harry Potter,” but knowing Rowell, I suspect there’s a whole lot more to it than that. I’ve already read the main characters, Simon and Baz, as the fiction-within-the-fiction of Fangirl, and even then, there was a lot going on with them.
The other day I heard someone – a fellow adult – mention how silly it was that his partner was reading a young adult (YA) novel. That doing such a thing should be beneath the dignity of anyone over 21.
I truly pity him for that mindset. Not only as a hopefully-published-someday-YA-author, but also as someone who has learned and grown as a middle-aged adult from the experience of not just reading, but absorbing, YA literature.
Especially that produced by Rowell.