Rainbow Rowell redefines young-adult literature genre

I’m surprised that none of my neighbors have asked me why, a few nights ago, they heard loud sobs echoing through my small, Coburn single. While they probably assumed that I was broken-hearted over an event in my own life, the truth is that I was uncontrollably crying— the black tears, snot everywhere kind of crying—over a fictional couple. Thanks, Rainbow Rowell.

Eleanor & Park, the book that caused me to become dehydrated at 1 a.m. on a school night, is a new Young Adult novel that has gained a lot of popularity within its genre. After John Green’s The Fault in our Stars reigned over the literary world as a NY Times #1 Best-selling novel and TIME Magazine’s 2012 “Fiction book of the year,” the culture of Young Adult literature has been all but quiet. Teens and adult readers have ditched the classics in their library’s “fiction” section and instead headed to the YA stacks, which are constantly overflowing with new novels.

Novelist Rainbow Rowell rode the fame of the  young adult genre in her novel Eleanor & Park. The story revolves around an awkward, frizzy-haired red-headed young teen, Eleanor, whose home life is anything but simple. Rowell writes of abusive step-parents and neglectful fathers in a subtle and haunting way, and the main character’s struggles are touching without being cliched.

At the heart of Eleanor’s story, though, is not her family life but her friendship with Park. After being forced to sit next to him on the bus during her first day at a new school, Eleanor despises the black-haired “stupid Asian boy” until they start to converse and make each other mixed tapes. While this plot sounds like the same story we’ve heard over and over, Rowell defies the typical structure of a cheesy romance novel by offering down-to-Earth, realistic dialogue and genuine emotion: she ultimately captures that classic ‘teen spirit’ down to the dirtiest details.

“Eleanor & Park” is the kind of book that you stay up late, way past your self-imposed bedtime, to finish because you can’t stand to spend a second without the characters (and that’s exactly what I did.)

Rowell’s newer novel, “Landline,” is her first break out of the YA genre and into the world of adult literature. In “Landline,” we follow a much older protagonist: middle-aged Georgie McCool, a comedy TV writer struggling with her marriage. Again, Rowell uses a narrative voice that is so realistic, it’s hard to believe the book isn’t one big journal entry.

Unlike the flawless “Eleanor & Park,” Rowell’s “Landline” did have a few problems. Though Georgie is a dynamic character, it was frustrating to read a falsified world of TV writing that was far from the reality in today’s entertainment industry. Past this flaw, Georgie’s monotonous sad, apathetic attitude detached me from her overall persona, and made her generally unlikeable.

The main complaint that I have, and that I’ve seen other reviewers point out, is that Rowell’s novel does a poor job of incorporating a strangely fantastical element. During Georgie’s separation from her husband, Neal, she stays in her mother’s house, where she finds her old, yellow rotary phone. She uses it to get in contact with Neal and their daughters, but instead finds that the phone travels back in time to when she and Neal were in college. A 40-something Georgie spends the rest of the novel communicating with 20-something Neal, and though it presents a interesting take on marriage and the passing of time, it seemed out of place in a novel that’s supposedly set in our universe.

Rowell, as a writer, builds strong characters with her on-key narrative voice. Though her YA novel found great success and broke the hearts of its audience members, “Landline” was not as up to par. This brings us to the ultimate question: what’s the real difference between YA and adult literature? In Rowell’s writing, the two genres are almost indistinguishable, as both of the books require the same level of reading comprehension. The conclusion, therefore, is that “young adult” books are only classified as younger because of the age of their characters, not the writing itself. Greene, Rowell, and their contemporaries should not be seen as “lesser” for writing Young Adult, nor should readers assume that a YA book will be more simple-minded than regular fiction, although that prejudice seems to be spreading as the newer genre grows.

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