Picture frames, perspective, and mad gushy book love

I wish I knew who to thank, because I am confident that I picked up Eleanor & Park not on a whim, but at the enthusiastic urging of a fellow book nerd.

I read it in a day and fell in mad, gushy love with this YA novel. This never happens. 

I read very few young adult novels that I’d call great–hey, many of them aren’t even good–but Eleanor and Park is great. It’s taken me a little while to understand why.

The characters were offbeat and likable; the storyline kept me turning the pages. But the framing on this book is genius, and it catapults the novel from solid stuff to best-of-the-year material.

Eleanor & Park

You find out on page 1 that this story of young love doesn’t have a happy ending. On page 44, you find out it’s because of Shakespeare. Or rather, that the book can’t reach greatness without him. A couple of pointed references to Romeo and Juliet–right in the middle of Eleanor and Park’s high school English class, of course–is all it takes:

“No!” Mr. Stessman said. “Someone else, someone with a heart. Mr. Sheridan, what beats in your chest? Tell us, why has Romeo and Juliet survived four hundred years?” 

Park hated talking in class. Eleanor frowned at him, then looked away. He felt himself blush.

“Because . . .” he said quietly, looking at his desk, “because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?”

Mr. Stessman leaned back against the blackboard and rubbed his beard. 

“Is that right?” Park asked.

I won’t spoil the book by spelling the rest out for you. Just know that Rowell brilliantly (and with a light touch) frames what the book’s about, and this framing turns a good book into a great one. (The writer in me is still marveling at how two hundred words about Shakespeare manage to utterly transform the book.)

As Wordsworth wrote, “We half-create the world we see.” Framing matters–in life and in books–and it’s a pleasure to see it done well.

Now for the disclaimers: I’m sure not all of you will like Eleanor and Park. To start, it’s a YA novel, and there’s a good bit of language. But if you’re at all curious, go grab a copy, and then come back and tell me what you think. (Rowell’s style reminds me of John Green: if you like him, you’ll like E&P.) If you’ve already read it, I want to hear your thoughts.

Hit me with your thoughts on Eleanor and Park (or Shakespeare, if you’re feeling nerdy). I’d also love to generate a list of books that benefit from interesting framing. Whatcha got? (Two more leap to mind for me: When You Reach Me, which leans heavily on A Wrinkle in Time, and Bel Canto, in which you also find out how the story ends on page 1).

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  1. Lisa says:

    Read Eleanor & Park last month and adored it. I agree that YA usually is good but not great. Have you read The Age of Miracles? It is a different type of YA but a very interesting storyline?

  2. Jaimie says:

    I’ve never even heard of this book! I have definitely read Shakespeare… took a whole class on it a couple years ago (ah, the benefits of being an English major). One of the things about that class that really stuck with me was the timelessness of the themes and stories of Shakespeare’s plays. They may have been written in an older English, but the scandal, romance, jealousy, tragedy, hilarity, and insanity that fill those plays translate to modern experience quite easily. It’s no wonder they’re classic.

  3. Funny, this book is sitting on my desk next in line! I just got several books that have a teen boy narrator since the YA novel I’m currently writing includes this. I’d recommend a new beautifully written YA about mental illness–Cameron and the Girls.

  4. Jeannie says:

    Eleanor & Park sounds like a great book that both I and my daughter (who performed in Romeo & Juliet a couple of years ago) would like; we’ll definitely check it out!

    My favourite framed novel is an oldie: Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. In the first chapter, the main character is describing her somewhat dull current life, about a year after the passion and heartbreak and suspense of the main story have already been played out– and we sense that she is now a very different woman from the one in the main story. Although the frame created in chapter 1 is not returned to at the end of the book, it still works beautifully. I love this one: it’s one of my Top Five ever.

    • Anne says:

      I remember reading Rebecca in about a day back when I was glued to the couch breastfeeding my firstborn. I couldn’t put it down.

      I would really recommend that you read Eleanor and Park before you hand it over to your daughter.

    • Sandra Burbank says:

      Rebecca was one of my first loves when I was a young teen. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it since then, and each time is different for me. I like the phrase, “framed novel.” I want to sit with that for a while and think about it in reference to my own writing. Thank you, Jeannie for mentioning Rebecca as your favorite “framed novel!”

  5. I love Bel Canto, too. Another well-framed book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Two siblings return to their childhood home – the book shifts back and forth in time, spiraling in on itself like a snail shell. I read it in college and was stunned. It’s heartbreaking and amazing.

  6. HopefulLeigh says:

    I’ve never even heard of this book! I’m going to see if the library has it. Interesting question about framing. I’ll have to see what comes to mind and we can discuss when WE SEE EACH OTHER WEDNESDAY NIGHT!

  7. jessica s says:

    Did you ever read The Book Thief? Another YA novel that tells you the end at the beginning, has an odd point of view, etc. It’s really good, especially for a YA novel.

    • Anne says:

      No, I haven’t, but I have heard reviews from both ends of the spectrum on this one. Nobody seems to be lukewarm about it. I didn’t realize it was YA though.

  8. I’ve seen several people raving about this book, but I thought it was just pretty good. I think the problem for me may have been that the book blurb made me think it was going to be very different than it was, about a high school couple who’s unusually mature and realistic about the chances of their relationship lasting. Instead, it seemed like more of an accurate representation of the average high school relationship — fearing that any little thing you say or do is going to cause your bf/gf to break up with you and consequently hiding things from them — but that wasn’t exactly something I needed to relive, and found it kind of annoying. But plenty of other people liked the book, so clearly my opinion shouldn’t be enough to stop people from seeing for themselves if they like it 🙂

    • Anne says:

      I’m so glad to hear from someone who’s read it! I And I think your less-than-enthusiastic review is helpful: other readers can realistically frame their expectations instead of expecting it to be The Best Book They’ve Ever Read, Ever. 🙂

  9. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about this… off to put it on my library request list!

    And, I’m sure I can think of better ‘frames’ – although I’m drawing a blank right now. Some of Geraldine Brooks’ stuff comes to mind though (particularly March, obviously).

  10. 'Becca says:

    I love Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, which hops back and forth between two timelines. In the present, Elaine is a successful artist and a mostly-normal person. In the past, her slightly unconventional family life set her up to be horribly bullied, but when that suddenly ended, she thought everything was okay. She’s kind of clinging desperately to the frame trying not to be sucked into the picture, yet she’s finally admitting that the frame is rotten and it’s only by looking at the picture that she’ll be able to fix it. Overall, the book has some flaws, particularly toward the end, but as a recovering bullied child I’m fascinated by the story.

  11. Erin says:

    I picked this up at the library based on this post and… I’m returning it half-read tomorrow. Gah! I could.not.make.it.through. So much teen angstness and circling around the same points again and again! Is there really a plot?

    The cover and music references = genius!! I’m glad I gave this one a shot, but it was a no-go for me. My YA rec of the year is definitely Code Name Verity. Set during WWII in England and France, told from two different perspectives. A little confusing in the beginning but once you get your footing you won’t put it down!

    • Anne says:

      Erin, I’m actually glad there are dissenters in comments (although I am sorry you didn’t like it!) There is a larger plot but it doesn’t become apparent until 2/3 of the way through or so (and then I was wondering how I missed it). But if you’re not loving something, life’s too short to keep plowing through.

      I’ve never heard of Code Name Verity. Thanks for the rec!

  12. S says:

    Loved, loved, loved this book! However, I thought it DID have a happy ending, because of the last line in the book. The scene in the first chapter duplicates itself towards the end, then there was a follow-up scene. I don’t want to give too much away (email me if you need the explanation), but in short, she comes through with needing to say something he was looking for. (It’s rather cryptic.) I also read the YA novel, “The Spectacular Now,” since the movie is coming out next month. I loved the writing (very Catcher in the Rye), but that has a language issue greater than E&P. Again, loved this novel! Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Anne says:

      Okay, it’s not in front of me right now: but happy? I’d go for not-terribly-tragically-wistful, but I don’t know about “happy.” Also, did you know Rainbow Rowell is planning a sequel? Not a definite go, but she’s talked about it in interviews. I’m keeping my fingers crossed…

      • S says:

        Ok, maybe “happy” was a little strong. Whatever is the opposite of “horrible ending” is. LOL! (At home with a toddler often makes me go for the first word I can find. Please accept my lack of creativity. :))

        Ohhhhh, a sequel! I will definitely check that one out when it hits the shelves. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I’m checking out her other book, plus keeping tabs on the one coming out in September.

  13. Dawn says:

    And so I finished it in one day! E & P was a great read. I didn’t like it as much as The Fault in Our Stars, but it’s up there. I adored Park.
    And this comments discussion is very interesting! Great catch on the framing device! I have read Rebecca twice and I love it; it may be time for me to read it again. Bel Canto is an all-time favorite; I too love the way Patchett tells that story. She’s so lyrical with her prose. And Code Name Verity was a book club pick for us in 2013 (along with TFIOS).

    • Anne says:

      I’m so glad you liked it!

      I keep hearing wonderful things about Code Name Verity: it’s in a shocking number of 2013 favorites lists! Adding it to the list for 2014….

  14. bethany says:

    hi there! you loving E&P helps me trust more of your book recs… i’m a hardcore YA reader (though I dabble in some of the more popular adult books) and also have read some books based on your many lists–like dear mr knightley. thank you for these! (and YAY RAINBOW!) did you read LANDLINE?

  15. Jenny says:

    I’m currently listening to E & P. I wish I had read it instead. I find myself wanting to rewind a lot to re-listen to certain lines and phrases. I loved Fangirl so I was really anticipating loving this book. Every friend I have on Goodreads that has read it has given it 5 stars. Every person! That never happens. I keep wondering what I’m missing. I feel left out. Lol!

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