… I tend to hate and love them with equal passions, so in order to stay away from the confusion, I head straight to the fantasy and sci-fi sections.
This week, however, I broke my own stupid rules and read a couple of books that I would hesitate to categorize as “romance”, though perhaps bookstores would disagree.
Reading these two books was a lot like figuring out you had a crush on that guy (yeah, you know the type):
- PHASE 1: Ugh, I don’t even like romance/that guy.
- PHASE 2: Uh-oh.
- PHASE 3: No, this can’t be happening. I don’t like romances/that guy … do I?
- PHASE 4: Well, this is happening.
- PHASE 5: Please God, don’t let this fall apart, please, please, please.
- PHASE 6: Oh.
- ALTERNATE PHASE 6: Oh?
I don’t want to talk about PHASE 6 because that would mean giving the ending away for each of these fantastic books, but I do want to talk about the rest.
Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, published in February 2013, tells the story of a girl from a poor, broken family. Her stepfather is a horrid man, so her home feels like a prison. And school is really not much better, with peers who bully her because of her weight and her odd clothes. Park comes from a much happier family, but one that is near obsessed with the idea of normalcy, so finding a way to express his gender identity in his own way is a challenge. The story begins when Eleanor sits with Park on the school bus. It’s always a silent, furious ride- until it isn’t.
You know, I didn’t think I would like this book as much as I did. But now I feel like I should write a fan letter to Rowell, complete with unicorns and rainbows for borders. Apart from navigating school and family, Eleanor and Park constantly have to navigate each other- their likes, dislikes, quirks, insecurities, and bodies. I love that Park is afraid and yet so unafraid- Rowell is extraordinary at getting into his head. She makes Park’s relationship to the school, his racial identity, to his gender, and to Eleanor, so complex and yet so easy to understand. I also love that Rowell makes Eleanor the opposite of a “fiery redhead” stereotype- except when Park stumbles around with his words and Eleanor is the one to make sure he understands why what Park has said has hurt/embarrassed/scared her. It is a relationship that actually shows growth, or a tendency towards growth. It is, in turns, beautiful and heart-wrenching to read.
Get. On. This.
Why You May Like This One: It deals with abuse, class issues, body positivity, and gender identity in a nuanced, positive way. You’re thinking about these things without even realizing that you’ve been thinking about them, because the writing is just too damn charming and so very clever.
Why You May Not Like This One: You hate The Smiths, perhaps? Oh, and maybe you
hate strongly dislike disagree with the UK cover like I do. EDIT: Re-reading this one, I notice that Park is sometimes sexist and Eleanor is racist. But! I would suggest that this is how teenagers accurately behave (God knows I did), no matter how “good” they are- they are still learning to be better and that is why this story is so honest: young love can be unique, lovely, and quite ugly. Secondly, these are moments worth discussing with peers/students. Thirdly, I cannot deny that Park should not have been Park’s first name, but given his asshat father, I am not sure whether this was intentional on Rowell’s part or not. I would still say that this is a pretty special book here.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz was published in September 2012. It’s the touching story about two boys who have lots in common, and a lot more that isn’t. There’s so much I love about this book that I don’t even want to give you a summary, just some friendly advice: be good to yourself and read the bloody book, okay? For those of you who don’t do romance, let me tell you, the romance is almost non-existent for most of the book. It kind of sneaks up on you, and when it does you end up feeling like, “This is perfect. Where the hell have you been?” It’s also the kind of book that makes you throw your hands up in the air when someone categorizes it as a “gay romance”. Yes, there is an exploration of gender and sexuality and the nature of romance, but good God, there is so much more and you will miss out if you go in reading with that mindset.
Why You May Like This One: Because Ari’s voice is genuine, because Dante is genuine, and because the writing is beautiful and poetic and yes, sometimes clichéd, but (as Laura observed) why does that matter when it’s true? The book may not explore your truth, but it explores the truths of these two rare characters who are minorities in more ways than one. I’m not saying that’s the reason to read the book. I am saying that it is a veritable triumph that such a well crafted book exists at all.
Why You May Not Like This One: Novels … are … not your thing? *shrug* I don’t know.
I found out recently that Eleanor & Park had been challenged in a Minnesotan library, and the book has been called “dangerously obscene”. And while I have no evidence for Aristotle and Dante, I would not at all be surprised if a book involving two latino, gay characters was to be challenged as well. It’s just a shame. But I’m also starting to realize that censorship works in so many levels, including your own brain telling you to not even look at that shelf because a. the covers are silly b. they’re all the same and c. how can a story be so unbelievable.
One or two of those things could actually be true, sure. But let me tell you, it will almost certainly be scenario a. or scenario c.
Give these books your time and it’s possible that it won’t make you feel like b. is true.
I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes it’s worth taking a chance and diving into something new. And maybe Banned Books Week is really the most appropriate time to start.
Okay, end of sappy review. Cheers.
*Ha! You see what I did to make this completely tangential post relevant to this month’s theme? Haha! I am an evil mastermind. Okay, maybe just an evil mind. Or … a mind.