Another batch of quality contemporary young adult fiction - three books from two authors with Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl and Eleanor & Park, and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.
Let's start with the two books from Ms. Rowell...
Fangirl (2013) follows Cath through her tumultuous first year at college. She's an identical twin (with Wren, who is quite noticeably not having a tumultuous year) and a die-hard fan of the Rowling-esque "Simon Snow" series. Cath's dreadfully shy on campus, but on the internet she's the author of the Simon Snow fan-fic. (Although Rowell is very good about seeding the basics of fan-fic, I do suggesting reading something like Renay's fan-fic introduction first - it helps not to go into the vocabulary completely cold.)
Cath struggles at college. She doesn't like being separated from her sister (Wren's choice, by the way). She's terrified of her roommate. She struggles with her classes, boys, the dining hall... everything, really. Cath discovers that "all the trickiest rules are the ones that nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can't google.)" - where does she sit? What should she say in class? Can she let her roommate's boyfriend into her room? The list goes on and on, and despite her popularity and social profiency online, the offline world is all a little too much.
Curiously, I thought I'd enjoy Fangirl for the fan fiction element, but actually wound up skimming the "Simon Snow" inserts. In most situations, I'd say that was the lesson: it isn't about the magical online world of escapism, it is about learning to face reality, and 'real' [fictional] drama is better than 'fictional' [fictional] drama. But Fangirl takes an unexpected twist at the end, balancing both worlds equally. There's no cosmic, cross-dimensional intervention, rather, Ms. Rowell takes the approach that we're all secret 'geeks' - fans of our own special interests. And that's totally ok: the trick is to be open to everyone else's enthusiasms as well as your own. Cath never has to choose between her two worlds, she winds up happy in both of them. (Er. Spoiler. I suppose. But were you really expecting otherwise?)
Eleanor & Park (2013) is a slightly more extreme version of the same tale - outsiders falling in love. Eleanor is a consciously 'wacky' newcomer to school, using her slightly manic dress-sense and personality to hide her deep, deep insecurities (all rooted in a hellish home life). Park is half-Korean, and the master of invisibility: he's figured out how to blend in to the whiter-than-white insular neighborhood by saying the right things, being in the right places; living with total apprehension. The two of them begin a slow-burning relationship after Park lets her sit by him on the bus (a rare 'throw caution to the wind' moment). Their two strange lives grow, well, stranger: fortified by one another's appreciation, they tentatively experiment with self-expression and find the results to be heady stuff. From comics to music to make-up to making out, Eleanor and Park find license in one another to be themselves.
Eleanor & Park is wildly romantic, and that, I suspect, is my primarily issue with it. While Fangirl certainly has its moments of slightly over the top drama, I felt like the overall result was a sort of 'optimistic ordinary'. Cath finds where she fits in the world - boys, class, fan fiction and family are all equal parts of that, but, ultimately, she's happy with herself. In Eleanor & Park, [spoilers follow] things build to a slightly more Lifetime-styled crescendo - family issues gone explosive, midnight road trips, the works. Eleanor and Park spend the book's denouement undoing themselves. Their confidence, their ability to be themselves is just that: theirs. Individually, they collapse back into ruin - worse than they were initially. The lesson is that they find happiness as a couple, and not in themselves. Granted, I'm a jaded bitter old person adult, but I don't think all of life's answers are resolved at sixteen, and I certainly don't think they're resolved by finding your soulmate at sixteen. It left me pessimistic thinking about their future, which is, I think, the wrong response. [ok done now]
This glides straight into John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (2012). This is an utterly beautiful book: the star-crossed (sorry) love affair between two teenage cancer patients. Hazel and Augustus meet in their support group, fall very swiftly in love and are then forced to decide if love is worth the pain, given the fact that they're living under the shadow of death.
Fault pulls no punches, which is part of its beauty: a book is as much about Hazel's inevitable demise (not a spoiler, sorry) as it is her inevitable romance (also not a spoiler). While Hazel does her best to concentrate on, say, her favourite book or video games or going to the mall, in the background, everyone is preparing for her death. Hazel, her parents, her friends - they all somehow cope with the fact that their time together is limited. Their dream, collectively, is to be ordinary. To live normal, boring lives without a drop of drama.
Augustus is the exception. He dreams of immortality - of being exceptional and of leaving a mark. His passion for the topic shakes Hazel. Like their romance, it involves a discussion of managing expectations. Hazel expects - knows - that she'll fade, having accomplished nothing, been no one; mourned only by a fleet of hypocritical and ephemeral Facebook commenters. Does this jaded outlook better prepare her? Or is Augustus' ambition the better approach? Shouldn't he 'manage expectations'?
Hazel and Augustus' romance is the ultimate expression of their different philosophies. She would rather play it safe: have the minimum impact, hurt the fewest people. He would rather the reverse. Thus begins a peculiar and particularly wonderful courtship, as Augustus attempts to convince Hazel that a life together - however short - is better than one apart.
My one challenge to Fault, and this has nothing to do with the text (which I think is stop-right-now-and-go-read-this exceptional), is that, like Paper Towns, I this book is written for someone like me. Which is very nice... except that I'm not, despite the action figure collection, a young adult. The dialogue is a little too sharp, the situations are a little too maturely-resolved, the references all feel more like how I picture being sixteen rather than, say, actually being sixteen. It is as inherently YA as "Juno", which is to say, not very: I may not agree with the hyper-romanticism of Eleanor & Park, but it does feel more pitched towards teenagers. They fumble, they make mistake, they lose themselves, they're prone to melodrama. Mr. Green's protagonists err, but they do so in razor-sharp and meaningful ways. It makes for fantastic reading - again, this is a terrific book - but it is an extremely stylised interpretation of teenagers.
With my marketing hat on, I'd find Fangirl the most authentic of the three: a 'harrowing tale of freshman year' is most likely to hit the right note of empathy and escapism. One of the commonly held truths of marketing is that teenagers 'look older': 10-12s buy products and read magazines that are pitched to 13-15s; 13-15s look to 16-18s; etc. For these three books, only Fangirl holds to the conventional wisdom. Eleanor & Park features 16 year olds (and some 1980s nostalgia) and The Fault in Our Stars is an outstanding literary novel, mis-shelved because it happens to feature teenagers. I'd love to know the actual demographic breakdown of the readership for each of the three. That's not to belittle the texts themselves: these are all (to varying degrees) very good books. But, as always with Young Adult, I'm left wondering if the readers are looking - and escaping - older or younger.