|You know, everything that comes with a new job...|
So it seems like everyone in the world has read this already, and I'm kind of late to the party. Mostly that's because I wasn't really expecting to like this book. For some reason, I was anticipating that the two title characters would be pretentious, kind of self-consciously clever in a grating way. I have no idea how I got this impression since I have yet to see an unfavorable review of this book. But I was expecting to find Eleanor and Park unlikeable as characters.
Go ahead and roll your eyes as you wait for this totally shocking reveal:
...Man, was I wrong. I, like so many before me, loved this book. The development of Park and Eleanor's relationship felt realistic and natural instead of inevitable. This is one of the more purely romantic books I've ever read, but it never felt cloying. It helps that both characters have more than their relationship going on. Eleanor's dealing with a frightening family situation at home, and bullying at school. Park, while privileged in comparison, has his own family issues to contend with, particularly with his father's restrictive ideas about masculinity.
I want to talk about Eleanor, though, and especially her feelings about her body. It's still sadly rare in my experience to find female protagonists who are on the larger side, and particularly in a romantic role. (Any readers have other book recs? The only other one that immediately comes to mind for me is Tanya Egan Gibson's excellent How to Buy a Love of Reading, but I'm sure there are more.) Her body is a huge part of Eleanor's consciousness. Her classmates call her "Big Red." She's mortified when Park catches a glimpse of her in her too-tight gym uniform. As someone who grew up a head taller and more than a few pounds heavier than my best friends, I appreciate Rowell's depiction of this body type. And I loved the disconnect between how Eleanor sees herself (fat, disgusting) and how Park sees her (sexy, desirable). It felt very true to life--the things media tells women are gross and wrong about our bodies are often seen as beautiful by our partners.
I read Fangirl next. Man, did this book take me back! Main character Cath is obsessed with her universe's answer to Harry Potter, the Simon Snow books. Having gone through my own period of obsession with our universe's answer to Harry Potter (read: Harry Potter), it was easy for me to relate.
(Some parenthetical Real Talk: my best friends and I started the Harry Potter club in college. We made a kickass sorting hat out of duct tape and cereal boxes. We made butterbeer. We expected a few of our other friends to come to the first meeting. We had almost forty people show up. It was awesome. We did a sorting ceremony and...maybe talked about the books? I don't think there was ever a second meeting. But my friends and I did read a lot of bad HP fanfiction out loud to each other. Good times.)
But so I could relate to Cath's fangirling. She's one of the big names in Simon Snow slash fanfiction, and she doesn't hide the fact that it's incredibly important to her. She's trying to finish her magnum opus before the eighth and final book in the series comes out. It's a challenge for her, because she's just started college. I love this, by the way. I love college stories. I love that Cath initially really struggles with being away from home. She misses her twin sister Wren, who's refused to room with her so that they can "meet new people;" she's worried about her dad, on his own at home; she misses her privacy and struggles with anxiety. Rainbow Rowell did a great job of showing Cath's anxiety without making the character seem pitiful. (Well, not too pitiful.) On the contrary, she's a talented writer with millions of fans, and is smart and funny to boot.
It wouldn't be a Rainbow Rowell novel without a good shot of romance, and so of course we get one here. I didn't find it had the same depth as in Eleanor and Park, maybe because the narration stays with Cath rather than switching off to show her partner's perspective? Whatever the reason, it's still a sweet romance, but I was more taken with Cath's developing friendship with her roommate, Reagan. They're such opposites, and it's a lot of fun to play them off each other.
Attachments was Rowell's first novel, I believe, and the last one of hers that I read. It's probably my least favorite of the three, although I still read it in one day, which I couldn't have done if I didn't enjoy it.
Lincoln's job is to read employees' emails to look for anything inappropriate. This is how he "meets" Beth and Jennifer, two friends constantly emailing back and forth about their lives. Lincoln knows it's a violation but he can't quite stop himself reading, or developing feelings for Beth.
Let's break this down. Epistolary fiction is tricky. I think it's a neat way for an author to show characters' voices. You can lose the immediacy that keeps you glued to the page, however. In Attachments, Rowell switches between the friends' emails and Lincoln's point of view reading them and making his way in the world. I'm not sure how successful the emails are. For one thing, I often had trouble remembering which woman was which. They both wanted very different and specific things, but their voices sounded very similar to me. (And the emails often read a lot more like IMs, but that's getting nitpicky.) Still, I love a good female friendship, and this is a good one. Beth and Jennifer are both articulate and kind and funny, and I definitely rooted for them both.
And then there's Lincoln. He's in his late twenties, living with his mother, hating his job, still trying to get over his high school girlfriend. I found his parts in turn captivating and problematic. I like to read about people how people who are lost in some way become un-lost (not the same as found), and that's very much the kind of journey Lincoln takes. And he's a likeable dude, considering he's reading Beth and Jennifer's private emails. (He does at least have the grace to be ashamed of himself.) His story is told with occasional flashbacks to the end of his relationship with his high school girlfriend. And that's where the story loses me a bit--it does seem like a meaningful relationship, but it's not quite clear to me why it takes this guy a full ten years to get over it. It seems a little overwrought to me, especially as Lincoln is described as a good-looking guy, a genuinely kind person who befriends chatty cleaning ladies at work, who has a group of good friends...it feels a little strange that he's so hung up on getting dumped a decade after the fact.
That said, it's still a sweet book. Rainbow Rowell's definitely one to watch. I enjoyed the hell out of all three of these books, and I look forward to the next one. She's clearly getting better and better.