Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reading ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell

I started this book as an audiobook in the car a few weeks ago.  It started slow, and it felt like a typical high-school romance at first.  At some point it morphed into something else.  It's a little more than just a high-school love story.

I should say a few things about this book before I try to write through this inarticulate confusion.

  • The book is YA Realistic.  There's some language, and some PG-13 stuff.  It's not too graphic, in my opinion.  But it's not MG.
  • It takes place in the 80's, with lots of comments about bands, TV shows, and 80's culture - like big hair, bangs, and the walkman.  
  • It's mostly friendly to teachers.  It's not a book about how awesome teachers are.  It's also not a book about how evil they are.  There are some cool teachers, and some semi-cool teachers, but no horrible, nasty kid-torturers.  
All of this adds up to a reasonable claim that maybe the book might be YA that was written for teachers?  I'm not sure that's entirely fair.  It's a good book, and I think kids would like it.  There are several brilliant passages, and I think most kids can feel that when they read it.  But it still feels like this book would be really special for older readers, and only pretty good for younger ones.  I don't know - I might be wrong about this.  

So, what am I trying to say about this book?

I didn't really like the ending.  I don't want to spoil it, but it wasn't enough.  It didn't feel like the story was really over when it ended.  

I should also say that the audiobook was a little disappointing.  I enjoyed the audio, but when I wanted to finish the last part of the book, and I finally had access to a paper copy, I found that the printed version of the book was much better than the audio.  Rowell's written voice was much richer and fit my imagination much better than the two voices from the audio.  

The back-and-forth first-person narration of the book works well when your brain is imagining the voices, I think.  I think we can conjure an appropriate-sounding voice for Eleanor, for instance.  Then, when Park is narrating what Eleanor is saying, we can use the correct voice, not the Park narrator trying to sound like Eleanor.  

Maybe that was the problem.  The audio, with two narrators, made the characters feel inconsistent.  When the actor reading Park did his voice for Park's father, for instance, it sounded very different from when the actress playing Eleanor tried to do it.  (And when Eleanor tried to explain what Park was saying, it sounded fake, and vice versa.)

Perhaps I should re-read this, in print.  

So, what did I mean when I said this was "more than a high-school love story"?  I think the back-and-forth voices were a cool technique.  I think it made the two perspectives more distinct and the narrative richer.  I also liked that the characters weren't typical "diamond in the rough" kids - they weren't just popular kids in need of a makeover.  Park is half-Korean, and Eleanor is a "big girl."  

I also really like Park's parents.  They both make terrible, even cruel mistakes with their kids.  But then they both end up surprisingly trusting, open, and reasonable.  They aren't too good to be true - because both of them have their jerk moments - but both of them more than make up for these things. In some ways, I like Park's father more than Park.  

(This feels like a bad rough draft of a review.  I'm going to publish this anyway, as a lesson to myself and my students.  Hope you enjoyed my unfocused, disorganized, and off-topic meanderings.)
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