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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 2: Eleanor & Park vs Far Far Away

JUDGE – RAE CARSON
Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
Saint Martin’s Press
Far Far Away
by Tom McNeal
Knopf/Random House

I read Eleanor & Park by the phenomenally gifted Rainbow Rowell first. The narrative is a strongly voiced tight third, rotating between Eleanor, the chubby, wild-haired, fashion-challenged new girl in town, and Park, the half-Korean boy who, by comparison, is well accepted in the community and has a loving family. The story takes place in the 1980’s, and the frequent pop culture references provide touchstones of connection for our two protagonists. When Park first sees Eleanor get on the school bus, he is less than impressed. Their slowly burgeoning acceptance-turned-infatuation-turned-love-turned-deep friendship is a beautiful thing to experience. A subplot involving Eleanor’s harsh home environment is harrowing and heartbreaking. I had minor quibbles with some muddled pacing in the middle and the underdevelopment of a few secondary players, but nothing that interfered with my reading enjoyment. I loved this book. Upon finishing, I wadded up my third tissue, sighed happily, and thought, “This is it. This is The One.”

Then I read Far, Far Away. Before I discuss this book, I must confess something: I have Reading Biases. Two of them are specific to Tom McNeal’s lovely book. First, I’m biased against omniscient narratives. Too often, omni POVs serve as protection against critical crucifixion while they “tell” rather than “show,” or insert the author’s voice at the expense of Story. Second, I’m biased against books that purport to be for children but are really for and about adults, or at least written through the filter of adult nostalgia. Far, Far Away triggered both these biases within the first few pages. In short, I was prepared to hate it.

McNeal’s book is narrated by the ghost of Jacob Grimm. Though told in first person, the narrative is functionally omniscient as he tells the story of Jeremy Johnson Johnson and a strange bakery in a somewhat ephemeral-seeming small town. An early flashback scene demonstrates my potential problems with the book: Jacob Grimm enters a library and encounters other ghosts, who inform us that generations of historical research and literary criticism have cast discomfiting shadows on Jacob’s life work. Meta-loving Adult Rae cackled madly. Kid Rae rolled her eyes. But as I continued to read, Kid Rae’s voice grew quieter and quieter. Jacob’s narrative began to win me over with its lovely language, its fairy tale quality, the melancholy voice, the sense of impending danger, and the delightful quirkiness of the characters. I became genuinely frightened for Jeremy, which made the happy ending all the more satisfying. By the time I turned the last page, I had fallen in love. Again. Dang it.

Two books. Both darn near perfect. I highly recommend either one. And yet, I must choose.

Because it overcame my biases, and because I can’t stop thinking about it days after finishing, I’m giving the slight edge to Far, Far Away.

— Rae Carson

A part of me has just died, ruthlessly killed by Ms. Carson’s inability to be biased, just for this once. As well as the heartlessness of the Battle Commander’s impossible pairings.

Eleanor and Park was the first book that I read in this year’s Battle of the Books. I remember just thinking to myself that it was all downhill from here, that there could not be any book that trumped the sheer perfection that was Rainbow Rowell’s maiden novel. Probably one of the most diverse, unexpected, and moving pieces of realistic fiction that I have ever read: I was almost correct. That was until I read the rest of this year’s bracket, and determined that they were all incomparably amazing pieces of literature. I completely fell in love with the love that Park had for Eleanor, along with his final act of heroism, saving the life of his first love, even if it meant losing her. Touching, adorable, and filled with dozens of “aww” inspiring moments, your heart would have to be made of steel to not want the magical love that Eleanor and Park have. I then read Far, Far Away, with the image of it vindictively stomping over the lifeless body of E&P, and I immediately believed that there was no way that I ever could like it. Much to my dismay, I was powerless against Jacob, Jeremy, and Ginger, convinced that the cake that I had eaten prior to opening the book was bewitched. Completely my kind of genre, fairy tale mixed with fantasy, I fell to the greater power that was Tom McNeal’s storytelling. But I will still stubbornly disagree with Ms. Carson’s final decision, putting her own selfish needs of an unbiased, clear conscience above that of all E&P fans.

– Kid Commentator GI

I, for one, am glad that Far, Far Away overcame Ms. Carson’s biases. Far, Far Away is a complex, haunting fantasy (filtered by adult nostalgia, sure, but that’s okay for a somewhat nostalgic 14-year-old), while Eleanor and Park is just that: Eleanor and Park. There’s nothing wrong with a poignant love story, but by the end, it gets too emotive, too forced – powerful, but overwrought. For me, the unexpected is more intriguing, and while I was a bit surprised by McNeal’s BIG PLOT TWIST (I sort of saw it coming), it worked. Ms. Carson is right, Far, Far Away might not be for children, it might be more for young adults. But it’s better than Hokey Pokey, for sure. If that book isn’t filtered by adult nostalgia, I don’t know what is. Even P.S. Be Eleven and The Thing About Luck are, just a bit more subtly. If these books weren’t filtered by adult nostalgia, we (not kids) wouldn’t be reading and enjoying them. Now, everyone’s going to be deeply upset about Eleanor and Park, before remembering that it’s probably going to win the Undead Poll (I’m still rooting for Rose Under Fire, which may have a remote chance).

– Kid Commentator RGN

THE WINNER OF ROUND 2 MATCH 2:

FAR FAR AWAY

Comments

  1. Even though I’m crazy in love with Eleanor & Park, I had a sneaking desire for this to happen — because that way both books can be in the Final Round! Because surely Eleanor & Park will have won the Undead Poll! Surely?

  2. Kristine A says:

    I didn’t know who I wanted to win until the winner was declared and I found myself so happy! Love them both, but FFA takes the cake.

  3. Sighing happily. Every year this list gets me to read books that I wouldn’t otherwise consider, and every year there’s one book that I fall in love with. This year, it was Far Far Away.

  4. Meredith says:

    I think I had the opposite experience-I had tons of biases against Eleanor and Park, and then it totally impressed me, whereas Far, Far Away seemed like something I would totally dig, and I was disappointed in it. Honestly, I am being so surprised by the outcomes of this year.

  5. What??!! Who??!! Disappointed – but I admit I had the same reservations at the beginning of Far Far Away and the same obsession with it once it was done. I just really, really loved the way Rowell described Eleanor and Park falling, falling, falling. And?… That not being a judge thing? Still, so so happy about that.

  6. For once, I liked every single book on the list this year, but there were some that I loved. The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is now the only one left in the battle that I loved. I was hoping Eleanor and Park would go all the way to the finals for two reasons: 1. I thought it was fabulous and 2. Because I’m pretty sure it will win the Undead Poll and I really, really wanted the winner of that poll to be Rose Under Fire. The only problem I had with Far Far Away was that I felt it had a really slow beginning. I had to force myself to read a large chunk of it before it really captured me.

  7. Every year there is one book that I want to see go down hard, and this year it is Far Far Away. And EVERY YEAR that book makes it to the third round.

    I don’t love Eleanor & Park and RGN summed up the reasons why. But I did enjoy it and it made me FEEL something, which is more than I can say for Far Far Away. No it’s not. It made me bounce between two feelings: a strong desire to go to sleep because I was so bored and a burning desire to strangle Jacob’s pompous pretentious neck to make him stop talking to me already. It overcame other people’s biases, but it couldn’t make me overcome mine. Partly that’s because an intrusive narrator is one of two things that will make me want to stab a book with sharp pointy things. (the other being the use of second person) Kid Brandy was unable to stop rolling her eyes. In fact the eye rolling increased exponentially as the book continued. It didn’t help that adult Brandy had the whole thing figured out after the first few chapters so there wasn’t any mystery left.

    I can understand how Rae Carson arrived at her decision though and respect it. And I will always love her no matter what she does for giving the world Hector. I can’t say the same for Patrick Ness if he chooses it over Boxers & Saints.

  8. Eleanor and Park blew me away. Pulled me to pieces and put me back together again, all skewed like a Picasso painting. Over the top? Maybe. But boy, does it sing–or rather howl and growl and bicker and sigh.

    On the other hand, when I read Far, Far Away after hearing how much reviewers and other readers liked it, I was disappointed. I felt like it was two different books in one–the modern serial killer story felt jarring to me when it eventually took over. I liked the first part of the book quite a bit and then got the sensation I was watching yet another TV episode or movie about the latest stock stalker.

    So I would have chosen differently, but then, this battle is always surprising as well as enthralling. Can’t wait to see what happens next!

  9. It’s interesting that Kate said she felt a little let down by Far Far Away after the review hype, when I felt that way over Eleanor and Park. I felt like there was such a push behind this book that it just didn’t live up.

    I’m thrilled with Far Far Away getting this win! It started so quiet and slow, then just spend up for me and left me needing a good long break to process. Those books that make you sit in silence just to put it all together at the end are the absolute best in my opinion.

  10. RAe Carsonis so expert at world building that this decision doesn’t surprise me. I think we all have our biases and expectations when a book has been touted so much. I think that’s why I was more ho hum about E & P and blown away by Far Far Away. But that one has it”s flaws as well. Just the mixture of ghosts, fiary tale, present day and super evil made it unique. I think we agree it’s unique. Sigh, so glad I don’t have to judge the next few rounds.

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