Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

15745753Blurb:

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

Review:

Eleanor & Park made me want to return to high school.

I KNOW.

That is an achievement I would have previously believed impossible. But this book made me feel the way I suspect everyone feels falling in love for the first time: giddy and confused; hopeful and anxious. It’s so deceptively simple; Rowell alternates between Park and Eleanor’s perspectives as they navigate their first intimate relationship, using sparse, poetic language to spotlight their emotions.

I read this with a smile crinkling my face. I tried to turn down the corners of my mouth when a character blurted “I love you” too soon. I tried to dismiss effusive descriptions like “Park was the sun” as trite. I tried—I tried so hard—to channel my inner cynic, to view this story as humdrum teenage romance muck. I failed. And so I read this story smiling.

From the moment Eleanor and Park fatedly meet on a yellow school bus and commence their relationship, their story is impressively realistic. They start by talking about everything for every hour of every day. That leads to the touching, beginning with accidental nudges and proceeding, slowly so slooooowly, to purposeful brushes of the fingers. By the time they’re in love, they barely even recognize it. It’s too late for them to wonder if the eventual pain will be worth it.

Once the protagonists’ hearts are stolen, my excited heart flutters mostly stopped and my anxiety increased because I knew there would be an end to their story; I knew it couldn’t stop with them holding hands, reading comics, and laughing together on the bus.

I was right. Eleanor and Park capture the sweetness and purity of first love and try to hold it as tightly as they can. They fail. And there is so much beauty in that.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review: Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois

17857661Blurb:

When Lily Hayes arrives in Buenos Aires for her semester abroad, she is enchanted by everything she encounters: the colorful buildings, the street food, the handsome, elusive man next door. Her studious roommate Katy is a bit of a bore, but Lily didn’t come to Argentina to hang out with other Americans.

Five weeks later, Katy is found brutally murdered in their shared home, and Lily is the prime suspect. But who is Lily Hayes? It depends on who’s asking. As the case takes shape—revealing deceptions, secrets, and suspicious DNA—Lily appears alternately sinister and guileless through the eyes of those around her: the media, her family, the man who loves her and the man who seeks her conviction. With mordant wit and keen emotional insight, Cartwheel offers a prismatic investigation of the ways we decide what to see—and to believe—in one another and ourselves.

Jennifer duBois’s debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and was honored by the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program. In Cartwheel, duBois delivers a novel of propulsive psychological suspense and rare moral nuance. Who is Lily Hayes? What happened to her roommate? No two readers will agree. Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page, and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.

Review:

There are two types of crime fiction: the books that explore who did it and the books that explore why the who did it. Of the interrogative pronouns, why is forever and always the most compelling. Tell me what, tell me who, tell me when, tell me how, but I will not be satisfied until I know why. And so, I’m condemned to eternal dissatisfaction because that pesky why is often unanswerable. Think of all the minute actions you take in the course of a day: can you say why you acted in that precise way? Maybe. But can you say why with certainty?

Jennifer DuBois tries to discover the whys in the aftermath of a murder committed in the most extreme of circumstances. A 21 year old American foreign exchange student Lily Hayes is accused of killing fellow (and altogether more blond and beautiful) American foreign exchange student in Buenos Aires. Why did Lily kiss her boyfriend mere hours after discovering her roommate dead? Why did Lily do a cartwheel after a grueling police interrogation? Why does Lily refuse a lawyer, why does Lily’s boyfriend remain free, why does the media analyze her Facebook like an undergrad analyzes Ulysses, why does the prosecutor believe her guilty nearly instantly?

If you are a true-crime buff and followed the Amanda Knox case, you are probably howling to the moon right now because it is these questions that we wanted answered. It’s fiction but it feels accurate. The success of a psychological novel is gauged by the empathy you are compelled to feel for the characters. As I read I could see a part of myself in every character: the naïveté of Lily, the loneliness of her boyfriend Sebastian, the no-nonsenseness of her murdered roommate Katy, the resolve of her parents, the vigilante spirit of her prosecutor. Ever since the domination of capitalism and Western individualistic ideologies, people prefer to emphasize the differences between humans rather than to discuss our similarities. But when reduced to our base materials, we are of the same atoms, the same cells, the same decision-motivating chemicals. We are of the same species and DuBois excellently captures how alike we are even in such an incredible situation.

I don’t know if we ever learn why in Cartwheel. We learn about the whys we tell ourselves and the whys we tell others, but the true ultimate why? Indefinable. And that’s why mystery novels and crime reporting are so enduring. Murder happens to people like us and murder is done by people like us, and when we recognize all of humanity’s proximity to that darkness, we must ask—we must know—why.

4 out of 5 stars