Rainbow Rowell Pisses Off Conservatives and Thrills Young Readers
Eleanor & Park, Fangirl
by Rainbow Rowell
(St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99)
Rainbow Rowell is having a hell of a year. The Nebraska author was banned from an appearance at the Anoka County Library in Minnesota because her young adult novel Eleanor & Park, which was published earlier this year, contains instances of the word "fuck." It's not just that the so-called Parents Action League got the library to pull Rowell's speaker's fee—Rowell told the Omaha World-Herald that she offered to do the event for free—but she was flatly told not to come. The League went on to complain that the book was, according to the World-Herald's Erin Grace, "'pornographic,' 'sexually explicit,' and too controversial for even a teenage audience."
Of course, that kind of talk inspires people to really, really want to read the book.
Turns out, Eleanor & Park isn't nearly as salacious as the Parents Action League would have you believe. It's a fairly innocent romance, a story of a single year in the very first relationship between two Nebraskan high-school outcasts. In fact, Rowell's writing could use a bit more Judy Blume–style oomph: Her novels suffer from the weird 21st-century American Puritanism that's permeated popular culture, wherein it's fine for characters to behave in a sexy manner and to drop the fuck-word with impunity, but actual scenes of actual human sex never actually happen.
If Rowell continues to accumulate eager teenage readers—more about them presently—she owes it to those kids to be earnest and honest about sexual matters. Wouldn't any thinking American rather have children learn about sex from books than from movies? Didn't Blume teach several generations to be more honest, more generous, and more intelligent about sex than ever? Maybe most importantly: Wouldn't frank descriptions of what it's like for a pair of kids to have sex for the first time really drive regressive pricks like the Parents Action League right up the fucking wall?
Setting that large and surly quibble aside, there's a lot to love about Eleanor & Park. Everything about the burgeoning romance rings with the awkward and beautiful resonance of truth. Eleanor is a believable outcast, not a Hollywood-style beautiful quirky girl who just needs to take off her clunky glasses to reveal herself as prom queen. And her relationship with the similarly ignored Park begins believably: They read comic books together, forging chains of nerdy love. (The book is set in the 1980s, when nerds are still treated as pariahs if they're spotted in public with Star Wars paraphernalia.) Those who were embarrassed by the treacly swooning of Twilight will find a lot to love here.
Rowell doesn't shy away from darkness. Eleanor is on the cusp of homelessness, and her mother is dating an abusive jackass. The secret that threads itself through the story eventually brings the whole romance crashing down as Eleanor's situation becomes dire. This isn't feel-good tragedy tourism; it's honest and avoids pat conclusions, which is exactly what young adult fiction should be.
Rowell's newest novel, Fangirl, is about a young woman named Cather who heads to college with her cooler twin sister, only to ostracize herself from pretty much everyone. She's afraid to ask where the dining hall is, so she makes do on protein bars, she worries about how her single dad is doing back at home, and she increasingly relies on the only real success she enjoys, as a popular-but-anonymous fan-fiction writer specializing in a Harry Potter–ish analogue. Cather struggles with authenticity as a writer whose most original creations use characters borrowed from another author. Mental illness, substance abuse, and, of course, the quest to find love are addressed along the way, with the same careful consideration that Rowell showed in Eleanor & Park.
But maybe the most exciting thing about Fangirl is the reception it received. Earlier this fall, the book was chosen as the first selection in Tumblr's Reblog Book Club program. Reading through reader responses on the central site, reblogbookclub.tumblr.com, demonstrates how Rowell inspires young readers. Book club members respond to Fangirl in the emotive language of social media ("OKAY. That's just freaking adorable. Rainbow Rowell is so good at making me feel all giddy at little moments like these. I. CAN'T. EVEN. RIGHT. NOW.") Sometimes, they react by uploading GIFs of Darth Vader, Ryan Gosling, and Benedict Cumberbatch acting out the emotions the book has inspired in them. They talk about fanfic, and whether it's a legitimate art form. They post drawings of Fangirl's characters. They interact with the author. They highlight their favorite quotes and take pictures of themselves drinking Cather's favorite coffee drink. The blog goes on for 49 pages like that, full of creativity and criticism and conversations and outright fangirling. I'm not going to pretend this sort of reaction to and interaction with a text is new, but it is gloriously, proudly public. Compared to the small-minded, hateful actions of a handful of regressive jerks like the Parents Action League, the love shown by these readers for Rowell's words feels joyous, like a happy ending.