Post written by guest blogger Jean Holland
Today I review and compare Eleanor and Park and Boy Snow Bird. Both are intimate stories about fragile souls finding and navigating love. There is an element of precarious existence in both narratives because they both have a violent abusive relative in the backdrop of their stories. Both have incisive and expressive writing and have the element of dual narration. Our narrators have secrets and share them through the arc of the stories.
First Eleanor and Park- Two shy awkward 16 year olds meet on the bus, try to ignore each other at first, then find a powerful bond and love in improbable circumstances. Set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1980s, Park is a half Korean boy from a happy family with his own unique interests who is trying to find his identity among friends and cliques of his high school. Eleanor is a fair, curly red haired, full figured girl with a wild mixed-up Goodwill wardrobe “Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild”. She lives in poverty in an almost prison-like household.
Like Romeo and Juliet, their love bond develops with sureness and inevitability of two soulmates finding each other -from timid hand- holding to passion. Rowell’s writing is so natural and confident, I never really doubted they were meant for each other. The slang and depiction of eighties culture and music is described as being pitch perfect. When Eleanor’s scary home life erupts they must part for the sake of her safety. Their separation is as heartbreaking as any two star- crossed lovers in literature but hope remains they will reunite! I found the clarity of feeling and expression through the alternating dual narration of Park and Eleanor incredibly flawless and effective.
Now to Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. After wading into the first few chapters, I knew I was in trouble! A young white woman named Boy in lower Eastside New York in the fifties is trapped in the surreal world of her vicious and abusive rat catcher father. This is a scenario I would have avoided reading about like the plague! When she escapes to a breezy, arty New England community boardinghouse and finds a new life, I am grateful but not really believing it. Not understanding this young woman who ponders her identity through mirrors, it dawned on me that I was reading a complex adult novel with nuanced writing and perceptions. The layers of myth and reality, subtle voice and identify quest were not going to be spelled out so easily.
Uh-oh. Looking for help, I saw a comment that the book draws on themes of love and “passing” reflected in the 1959 movie "Imitation Life of Life". Wow- My favorite tearjerker movie of all time! Diving back in, I gradually heard the voice of the young woman Boy- knowing, jaded with wry humor with many depths and hidden layers as she navigates life -finding friends and some stability marrying Arturo a widower with a young daughter. The Snow White motive is so subtly woven through the narrative I feel like I missed it- but regarding stepdaughter Snow’s house: “Well, a princess has been asleep there for hundreds of years". When Boy and Arturo's daughter Bird is born a secret of Arturo’s black heritage is revealed. The internal tensions of the family choices are presented with clarity and in vivid voices. To protect her new daughter, Boy makes a cruel choice all while describing herself as an unlikely evil stepmother.
A not very seamless transition to a new narrator takes place in the second part of the book. But the writing is vibrant here in Bird's voice as she writes letters to her stepsister Snow. The girls’ exchange show sparks of personality and insight as they navigate their identities and friendship. The final narrative finds the menacing figure of the rat catcher entering the story with a surprising twist on identity. Bird goes with her two daughters to search for some healing with this figure as the story ends. Believable to me? No- but I forget that it is a story more of myth and shadow, light and dark and nuance rather than reality.
Boy, Snow, Bird author Oyeyemi writes with meticulous insight and engaging imagination. It seems like at least three or four narratives and themes are woven but not blended quite well enough for this reader to grasp. So I cast my vote for the touching Eleanor and Park.