Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Double review: Fangirl and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell is a new addition to my favorite authors list. Her novels are hard to categorize. St. Martin's Giffin is a Macmillan imprint geared to adults, but you'll probably find Fangirl and Eleanor & Park shelved in the young adult section at the bookstore. Adults should crossover and read them too.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (September 2013) is one of the best books I've read this year. Abandoned by their mother at age eight, Cath and Wren became obsessed with Simon Snow fantasy books. By age eighteen, Cath is the most popular Simon Snow fan fiction writer online, with fans of her own. At college Wren wants to be a normal coed and distances herself from her identical twin. Cath holes up in her dorm room with power bars and escapes into Simon Snow's fantasy world. Her writing teacher and new friends struggle to pull Cath into the real world.

Don't let the fan fiction part make you miss out on a great book. I've always avoided fan fiction because it sounded like quasi-plagiarism, which is an attitude shared by the writing teacher in Fangirl. With due respect to J.K. Rowling's copyright, Rowell created a Simon Snow series inspired by Harry Potter. Dazzling excerpts from the Snow books and from the twins' fan fiction appear throughout the novel, echoing real world themes. Cath's fan fiction is distinct in style and spin: the two boy wizards are secretly in love with each other. The gay-romance conceit verges on satire without losing heart. Both fans and foes of fan fiction will find much to love in Fangirl.

Fangirl is also a coming of age story with a sweet misfit romance. College boys are mostly interested in casual hook ups or flirting for help with homework. It's no wonder that Cath retreats to a fantasy world, but the real world characters prove to be more compelling. Toward the end, I forced myself to read more slowly because I knew I'd miss the characters after the final page. Book bloggers of all ages are raving about and rereading Fangirl. Rowell taps into something universal in the terrifying but exhilarating experience of freshman year at college.

I love Rowell's fresh writing style:
"Cath lived in a dorm, like a young adult - like someone who was still on adulthood probation.
"He made everything look so easy...Even standing. You didn't realize how much work everyone else put into holding themselves until you saw Levi leaning against the wall....He made standing look like vertical lying down." 
On writing fiction other than fan fiction: 
"When I'm writing my own stuff, it's like swimming upstream. Or...falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches, trying to invent the branches as I fall."
The book within a book: 
"'You don't do magic,' she said, trying to smile modestly and mostly succeeding. 'You are magic.'" - Gemma T. Leslie's Simon Snow

Eleanor & Park (February 2013) has been a big crossover hit with teens and adults. The main characters are in high school, but the narrative is set in the 1980s. The pop culture references would appeal to nostalgic middle aged readers. It's a sweet misfit romance between an obese girl and a glam rock boy. This engaging book sets the cruelty of bullying against the power of love.

Adult readers will appreciate that the parents in Eleanor & Park are well developed characters with subplots of their own. Her abusive step father and battered mom undercut Eleanor's self confidence while Park struggles to please his macho GI joe dad. My one gripe was that Park's mom wasn't Korean beyond her thick accent. She cooked Midwestern food, decorated her house in suburban style and avoided talking about her childhood in Korea (she met her American husband during the Korean War.) I grew up with several Korean American friends and that culture left an imprint on the whole family and on me (I still crave Joy Kim Slote's scallion pancakes.) Fangirl does a much better job with the Mexican American characters, but they were less central to the narrative. Nonetheless, I was pleased that Rowell had multicultural elements to her books.

Rowell writes in the third person, shifting between Eleanor's and Park's POV:
"She would never belong in Park's living room. She never felt like she belonged anywhere, except when she was lying on her bed, pretending to be somewhere else." 
"Holding Eleanor's hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive."
YA author John Green summed it up so well in the NYT: "Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it's like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it's like to be young and in love with a book."

Reviewer's Discloser: I bought Eleanor & Park in hardcover at Sherman's Books. I was too eager to wait until Fangirl arrived in Maine bookstores so I bought the ebook on its release date. Then I loved Fangirl so much that I bought a hardcover copy at Longfellow Books to reread later. I was surprised that Fangirl was 438 pages in print since it read like a book half that length. Rowell's Attachments, an office romance debut, is on my TBR list.

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@Barrie Summy


Liviania said...

Rainbow Rowell really is taking everyone by storm!

I didn't really find the gay romance angle in Fangirl satirical since slash is one of the biggest subgenres of fanfiction.

Sarah Laurence said...

Liviania, thanks for telling me about slash [from Wikipedia: sexual attraction between same sex characters in fanfiction. The first example was Kirk and Spock in Star Trek.] As you may have guessed, I'm pretty ignorant about fanfiction.

Barrie said...

Kelly, my critique partner who wrote this month's review on my blog, talked me into listening to Eleanor and Park. So, I'm on the wait list at the library. But, after reading your review, I'm not sure I can wait! Perhaps I know! I'll start with Fangirl! Thanks for reviewing, Sarah!

A Cuban In London said...

"trying to invent the branches as I fall."

That's probably one of the better quotes I've read in a long time. If her novel is as good as that quote, I will have to (begrudgingly, mind, I have too many books in the to-read queue) place it on my amazon list.

Many thanks for the reviews. They were most appreciated.

Greetings from London.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Liviana is right about the slash fiction. The pairing I heard about was Harry and Draco. :-O

Glad you enjoyed the books.

Stacy said...

Those sound incredible. I'm trying to read more YA, so I'll have to check these out.

Donna said...

I'm definitely adding Fangirl to my to-read list. I've been hearing such good things about it. Thank you for the review!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, do come back and tell me what you thought of Rainbow Rowell.

Barrie, thanks for hosting the book review club! You'd enjoy the sense of humor in these books.

I'm feeling inspired.

Margie said...

Thanks for the review (great) of this book, sounds wonderful.
I have it "on my list"

Rose said...

Great review! I first heard of fan fiction several years ago when a student of mine told me about it. She wrote frequently on the site; I always wondered if she ever progressed into doing something more original. Interesting premise for Rowell's book.

Bee said...

Hi Sarah!
I saw your link on Goodreads (as I was writing my own review) and thought I'd dip in. It's been too long.

I very much enjoyed your review, especially the bits about Fangirl (as I haven't read this one yet), but I do take issue with the word "obese" as it applies to Eleanor. I'm pretty sure that Eleanor is meant to be curvy and well-developed -- which makes her an uncomfortable target for her awful stepfather's interest (hence the loose, masculine clothing) -- but not obese!

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, welcome back! I've missed you. I thought you'd like this author too. In interviews the author says Eleanor is fat but not as fat as she thinks she is. The point of the story is that an overweight person can be attractive, both inside and out. It's interesting how many readers imagine that she is smaller. Perhaps obese seems like a harsh word, but I wanted to be clear that she is overweight. Park loves her as she is, which is wonderful.