Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fiction | Romance vs. Realism in a Story of Young Love

Rainbow Rowell's bestseller Eleanor and Park strikes me as one of those YA romances like The Fault in Our Stars that is sure to be a hit with the teen crowd...while the realistic cynical adults like myself are entertained but also kind of roll our eyes and say, "Yeah, OK."

Or that may just be me, so I'll start with a summary, share my praise and grievances, and then let you be the judge.

The year is 1986, and Eleanor is the new girl in school. She wears weird clothes and doesn't talk much and nobody really wants to find themselves associated with her. But that's what happens to Park; he finds himself stuck next to her on the bus, and while he feels a certain amount of pity for Eleanor as the "weird new girl," it's not enough for him to outwardly befriend her.

But Park and Eleanor are slowly drawn together on their short bus rides in the morning and afternoon—linked by music and comics, eventually forming a quiet friendship...until one day when they find they can't live without each other. They love each other despite their quirks, and usually because of them; they love each other because they provide for each other new and unfamiliar worlds unlike their own background; and they love each other because they each feel such surprise that anyone could love them back.

The real meat of the plot here is Eleanor and Park's developing relationship and how it responds to all of the outside factors that come its way—how they're treated at school, how they handle it within their families, and, more seriously, Eleanor's own impoverished home environment with an abusive parent. Just as real teenagers have to do every day, our protagonists have to navigate their own ever-changing emotions and new grown-up experiences in the already-chaotic world around them.

Here's where I'll digress into my post-adolescent cynicism just a bit...

I felt that Eleanor and Park, as often happens in young adult entertainment, had an extra injection of emotion and melodrama, of angst and romance, that authors and screenwriters and lyricists pump into their works to reflect how affecting adolescence is. But, though teens certainly feel a huge range of emotion, and though they do deal with many many serious issues, everyone is just not this affected. These authors pen characters and behaviors and actions that would rarely, if ever, actually happen...but yet it's the stuff that teens may want to happen, because they want to be more and feel more than they are.

It's a poignant time in terms of emotional development, but I don't always find stories like this very realistic. Usually it's a particular action of a character, as it was in this book, that puts me over the edge and draws the line between contrived and realistic; because, whether its my adulthood or my realism, I just don't believe these actions would happen. And worst of all, I think they perpetuate this incomprehensible reality of "teenagedom" that terrifies adults when it's really a very comprehensible, relatable thing—we've all been through it. Which I guess is my point. Sometimes it just seems unrealistic when maybe it shouldn't.

But, ultimately, who said books have to be realistic? A romance is a romance; it doesn't always have to perfectly mirror reality. If this will connect with a teen because they want and need that deep emotional impact, more power to this book and its message. And I especially praise the author for an uncensored version of high school relationships, good and bad. [Read more about censorship of this book and Rainbow Rowell's response.] This level of reality is what really connects with teens; you don't need to sugarcoat the harsh realities, and they want the down and dirty nitty-gritty. I would without a doubt recommend Eleanor and Park to my teen readers, and then probably play the devil's advocate part of a cold, heartless, unaffected grownup to inspire a great discussion with them.

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