notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
When I visited Mexico City this April, I couldn’t help but notice dozens of teenagers and college students toting around a book with a bright blue, simply designed cover. They were immersed, on park benches and in coffee shops, in a paperback called Bajo la misma estrella (The Fault in Our Stars) by John Green. I’d never heard of it, but when I spotted the title in one of the many Ghandi bookstores around the DF, I decided to pick it up. Luckily, Ghandi sold the book in English, and I just so happened to finish all the reading material I had brought with me on my trip. I devoured the entire thing in less than two days, foregoing sleep and cracking it open any chance I got so that I could finish Green’s bestseller as soon as possible. As most of us know, it’s now a major motion picture (I haven’t seen it, and won’t), and John Green is the new favorite author of teens worldwide. I passed it around to my (adult) girlfriends when I got home and they also loved it–and, of course, cried their eyes out.
I never got into Twilight or the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Heck, I haven’t even read Harry Potter. I’ve never been a big fan of Young Adult (YA) Fiction, but recently that’s changed, oddly, since I was in Mexico City. Alongside The Fault in Our Stars in all the bookstores and on Mexico City’s street side stalls was a book called Eleanor & Park (another catchy-cute cover). I couldn’t find it in English, so I made a note in my journal to check it out of the library when I was back in the states. Much to my chagrin, the book had a wait list 152 people deep, and it took over four months for me to finally get my hands on Rainbow Rowell’s bestseller.
When I did, I fell in love with it immediately. Eleanor & Park is about two teenagers–Eleanor, a smart, chubby, redheaded girl who doesn’t fit it and comes from a less-than-happy home, and Park, a half-Korean music and comic book geek with a pretty mother and a stable, supportive family–who end up meeting on an Omaha school bus and falling in love. It’s not a typical love story, and it’s not your average cliche YA Fiction, either. It’s surprisingly real–so real, in fact, I’m not surprised many parenting groups have lobbied for it to be taken off high school library shelves. Cursing, sex, bullying, abuse–Eleanor & Park isn’t just an innocent teenage love story. The themes are more adult than young adult, but are certainly relatable to many in Rowell’s target audience. As soon as I finished the book, I combed the library’s website and requested all of Rainbow Rowell’s other titles.
Both Fangirl and Eleanor & Park are quite long–430 and 300 pages, respectively–but are such interesting, relatable, entertaining reads that length is never an issue. In fact, in the case of Fangirl especially, I didn’t want it to end. (I wasn’t overly taken with the ending, actually–I thought it was abrupt, and a bit of a copout on Rowell’s part, but I’ll stop there to avoid any spoilers). Fangirl is about Cath, a college freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who is in love with a Harry Potter-esque series called Simon Snow. She writes fanfic, or fan fiction. There’s a lot going on in this story–Cath weens herself from her twin sister, Wren, who has a bit of a first year drinking problem; there are love interests and a rude roommate; her writing professor accuses her of plagiarism–and much more. It’s been a decade (gasp!) since I was in college, but I could relate to almost everything Cath went through, from the dining hall-induced anxiety to the freedom, and fear, that comes with being away from home for the first time. I absolutely loved it, and I think my eighteen-year-old self would have loved it even more.
I can honestly say I’m a huge Rainbow Rowell fan now, and will keep an eye out for anything else she publishes. Her writing isn’t just for Young Adults, and I think that label might trip up some of us erudite twenty- and thirty-year-olds. If there’s any lesson to take from Rowell’s books, it’s this: don’t judge someone based on a a label, or stereotype. Certainly Cath and Eleanor are both more complicated and interesting than they seem, and Rowell’s books go so much deeper than their YA label allows.
Next up: Rowell’s two contemporary adult novels, Attachments and Landline. Hopefully the library queue doesn’t take four months this time…
Check out Rainbow Rowell’s awesome website here.