It is just my luck to be assigned 2 books in this book battle that I have both read before and loved immensely.
Obviously, these books couldn’t be more different from one another. One is set in the early 1930s about an African-American woman fighting to define her own life and carve out some happiness in an unfriendly world and the other set in the 80s to a cool soundtrack, suburbia, and teen angst.
First, I set out to re-read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I was again struck at the beauty of the language. Rarely does a writer use vernacular to such skill (sadly, I think this is why people dismissed the book when it was originally published). I was pulled into Janie’s life and immersed in her community. Janie begins the story with very little personal agency. She wants love and adventure, but is told she needs “safety” and “respectability.” First by her Granny who has outlived slavery and aims to provide respectability and leisure for her granddaughter. Janie’s first husband is an older man who might love her given the chance, but he bores her and Janie runs away with a flashy well-dressed man with big dreams. She believes and works for those dreams alongside him until he too starts boxing her up into respectable package. After he passes away, she meets Tea Cake. A younger man, with a spectacularly strange nickname, who sweeps her off her feet and treats her as she has always wished to be treated (albeit with some abusive interludes). He provides Janie romance and partnership and she loves him despite his flaws. Unfortunately, Tea Cake gets rabies and a tragic demise at the hands of Janie.
What one is struck with in Their Eyes is the beauty in the everyday. The everyday is often filled with struggle and dissatisfaction. But it is also filled with friendship, support, and companionship. Janie is not always a sympathetic character, but she is a believable, strong woman, whom most of us can relate to. The people are not rich in material goods, but rich in community, expression, love. Janie’s journey of personal growth appeals to the adult in me. It is a passage of heartache and joy that we all experience in our own way. It is the everyday, under-told story of life.
Eleanor & Park, on the other hand, struck me as almost painful (in a good way – I guess) with the naivety and honesty of dialogue between the two main protagonists. I cringed. I had to stop reading. Then, I had to pick the book back up because I didn’t really want to stop. It was beautiful and stripped bare of pretense and guile. The joy of this artlessness, I can’t help but feel, is because we saw their inner life written down – in real life this sort of thing is just super, super, super awkward.
So here we have two very different people from very different homes on a collision course. Eleanor from an abusive, threatening situation, is poor in every sense of the word. There is a dearth of protection, love, support, and money. Park is from an incredibly safe and supportive situation with parents who love him, provide for him, and so he is suffering from normal teen problems: parents just don’t understand (although in his case they try and try and try until they mostly do). Both stand out from the crowd because of how they look. Eleanor due to her flaming red hair and thrift store clothes, Park because he is the only half-Korean in the neighborhood (besides his little brother who looks much less Korean than he does and so apparently he doesn’t count).
The delight in this book is how they come to love and celebrate their differences in the most innocent way possible (I think Park is a delight, but I also think he was a de-sexualized shell of a normal hormonal teenager). Simply put, this book is agonizing to read in the best possible way.
So there you have it. Both titles were beautiful in their own way. I related to both Janie and Eleanor. And Park for that matter. But where Their Eyes was steeped in realism, Eleanor & Park was pure fantasy and innocent empowerment. And that’s apparently what I needed the day I read this. Eleanor & Park for the win.