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It’s not like any other love: Eleanor & Park

22 Oct

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press

Expected publication: March 2013

Previously published in the UK by Orion in April 2012

Digital copy for review kindly provided by the publisher.

“It’s not like any other love – this one is different, because it’s us…”* Naturally I have to use lyrics from The Smiths to discuss Rainbow Rowell’s eloquent forthcoming novel. After all, imagine my delight over finding this quirky story set in Omaha, Nebraska during the 1980s (an especially good decade for cartoons) about two teens slowly falling in love over comics, the maudlin sounds of Morrissey and Joy Division, and a shared sense of being completely out of sync with the world around them.

Park has always been somewhat of an outsider in the Flats – his musical tastes, predilection for X-Men and Alan Moore, and biraciality (he’s half-White/half-Korean) sets him apart from his classmates. His pseudo-friends, the oafish Steve, and his mean little girlfriend, Tina, find Park curious. Sure they tease him, good-naturedly, but deep down they’re confounded by him, and in Tina’s case, definitely attracted, too. Enter Eleanor.

Eleanor’s bright red hair, and her off-beat fashion makes her the target of ridicule on her first day of school. On the surface, Eleanor reminded me of Andie Walsh (played by Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink. Like Andie, Eleanor outwardly appears stoic, quietly enduring the jeers and taunts; inwardly, she’s self-conscious, and the choices she makes aren’t always dictated by a need to go against the grain. Kicked out the year before by her abusive stepfather, Eleanor is just returning home, uncertain of everything and everyone around her.

When they first meet, Park is taken aback by Eleanor – his reaction partly stems from how his peers perceive her. Even though he knows he’s different from his them, he doesn’t want to be ostracized. Park grudgingly lets Eleanor sit next to him on the bus. Rowell builds up their relationship ever so slowly – moving from the mundane details into deeply emotional territory. In many contemporary stories, love swoops in almost too quickly, and that’s largely because we live in a culture of immediacy, demanding instant gratification. Rowell’s novel is soporific – sure there are nightmarish moments (especially Eleanor’s family life), but their romance truly feels dreamlike – like a paused moment in time.  While their connection has all the bright intensity of an indie love song, it’s clear to readers that Eleanor & Park won’t go the distance. Not because love isn’t enough, but because love doesn’t always conquer all.

Rowell intercuts the romance with poignant dialogue about Park’s feelings about his Korean identity –sadness over being misunderstood by his white father, and insecurity over Eleanor’s attraction to him. In a particularly telling scene, Park tells Eleanor, “Look at M*A*S*H. The whole show takes place in Korea, and the doctors are always flirting with Korean girls, right? But the nurses don’t use their R & R to go to Seoul to pick up hot Korean guys. Everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls” (Location 2824 – Kindle). When Park tells Eleanor that he doesn’t understand what it means to be Korean, she asks, “Does it matter?” (Location 2838 – Kindle) It’s not such a minor question, considering that Park spends a significant amount of time analyzing all the dissimilarities between himself and his father, including, racial differences. Eleanor’s Danish heritage is revealed in a violent scene in which her drunken stepfather hurls a bowl of risalamande (Danish rice pudding – traditionally served during Christmas) against the wall. Eleanor’s Danishness is a wistful reminder of how things were before her mother married an abusive man; it’s not surprising that she wonders about the importance of one’s cultural background.

Rowell writes with brilliant clarity, expertly using alternating voices to draw readers into Eleanor and Park’s world. If you’re looking for a happy ending neatly tied up with a bow, this novel doesn’t provide that. Rather, Eleanor & Park’s appeal stems from its stark realism, and the sense that this story could happen to anyone.

*Hand in Glove by The Smiths

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As American as apple pie

8 Apr

A few weeks ago, while going through an amazing stockpile of books sent to me last year by publishers to consider for the Amelia Bloomer Project, I spotted a lovely gem: an early chapter book written by Jenny Han. As a fan of her Summer trilogy (YA), I was super excited to read Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream. Jenny did not disappoint – I was completely captivated by little Clara Lee and her mission to become Little Miss Apple Pie.

Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han. Illus. by Julia Kuo

Released: January 2011

Publisher: Little Brown for Young Readers

Grade Level: 1-4

In case you’re wondering, I’m not making any apple pies…

Third grader, Clara Lee is incredibly excited about the town of Bramley’s upcoming Apple Blossom Festival, with its apple bobbing, candy apples, apple dessert contest, and the town parade. But the  most important part of all is Miss and Little Miss Apple Pie, where one high school student and one elementary school student are chosen to represent the town in the parade. “Miss Apple Pie is pretty much a dream come true…You wear a red sash and a tiara with little red apples on top. You wave, and you throw apple candy at the crowd. Little Miss Apple Pie gets to stand next to her..[and] wear a sash too, and a tiara…” (Pg. 13)

Despite its title, the main charm of this book isn’t the Little Miss Apple Pie pageant, but rather Clara’s interactions with her friends and family, and the way she deals with balancing her Korean identity with her American one. Clara is determined to win the Little Miss Apple Pie contest and even has her winning outfit planned out. “If I won, I knew just what I would wear. The dress Grandpa bought me in Korea…It’s Korean style, with a skirt the color fruit punch and a white jacket with rainbow-striped sleeves, and best of all, a long bow.” (Pg. 14) Unfortunately, Clara hates making speeches, and making a big one in front of the school is part of the contest rules. One night, Clara has an awful dream about her grandfather (with whom she’s very close) that leaves her shaken. But according to her grandfather, in Korean culture, dreams involving death portend good luck, and Clara’s is about to change! And sure enough, Clara begins experiencing an upswing–she conquers the dreaded rope climbing exercise in P.E., her friend Max shares his cookies with her (unusual because he’s not a sharer), and a secret admirer leaves a candy necklace in her desk.

Even though “luck” is now on Clara’s side, she still contends with everyday issues, such as trying to get along with her younger sister, Emmeline, dealing with a friendship rift, and trying to prove that she’s just as American as anyone else.  When fellow rival, Dionne Gregory implies that Clara isn’t American enough to be Little Miss Apple Pie, Clara feels saddened and confused. “Wasn’t my family as American as apple pie, too? Grandpa came from Korea, but both my mom and dad were born in America, just like me. I deserved to have a shot at Little Miss Apple Pie as much as Dionne did. Didn’t I?” (Pg. 80)  Han handles Clara’s dilemma with sensitivity, and simple, clear language that conveys the feeling of being Othered. With her family and friends rallying for her, Clara realizes that she’s just as much of a contender for the pageant title as anyone. Her touching speech about interconnectedness and the sense of community in Bramley certainly won me over! I won’t tell you what happens, but the ending was definitely satisfying, like a slice of warm apple pie with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream! For readalikes, please check out Grace Lin’s Year of the Dog and Maria G. Lee’s F is for Fabuloso.

Copy kindly provided by Little, Brown.