Rainbow Rowell and the World with No Rules

I plead guilty. I am a prude, a moralist, a prig. And I am so tired of living in world without rules. I am so tired of reading about a world without rules, watching movies and TV shows in which there is nothing that is off limits (except rules themselves). Yes, I know we need grace; I need grace the way I need air, food, and water. I survive and live by the grace of God. But we also need Law. Boundaries. Some sort of framework to live by, to measure by, something besides my own emotions and my own weakness. Something to which to apply the grace that God so freely offers.

And what has this rant to do with the latest, greatest, most popular YA fiction author of 2013 (if I am to judge by all the 2013 best-of lists that include one or both of the books she published this past year)? Rainbow Rowell is the author of Eleanor and Park, a high school love story, and Fangirl, a freshman year in college love story. I read Eleanor and Park first, and I’ll admit I liked it. The lady knows how to tell a story and especially how to create characters that shine. Eleanor is a fat girl with a dysfunctional family. Park is a Korean American boy with a fully functional family, but he lives life at the mercy of school bullies and of his own insecurities about being short and small and sort of geeky (or nerdy, I can never remember the difference). The slow build-up to romance between the two outsiders was fun to read and well-written. Then, wham! The two sixteen year olds did whatever it was they did in the backseat of a car (I skimmed). Oh, why did we have to have that part? Why couldn’t Park just say that he thought Eleanor was beautiful but he respected her and didn’t want to take advantage of her vulnerability, or something? I got a little tired, but as I said, I skimmed.

Then, I read Fangirl, different plot, different age group, similar characters. There’s a girl, Cath, with a dysfunctional family who’s closed off and vulnerable at the same time. There’s a guy, Levi, from a Baptist family, who’s sweet and caring and giving to the point of saccharinity. But Ms. Rowell reins in the sweet so that Levi is just that, adorable and no more. Fangirl feels for a while as if it could be about the consequences of living without any moral framework. In fact, Cath’s twin sister, Wren, messes up big time because no one has ever told her what the rules are or expected her to live by any rules at all (absent mother, mentally ill father). But Levi and Cath get along just fine without any reference to religion or morality or . . . anything. All that stuff is so . . . old-fashioned. Levi mentions that his mom is involved in church and attends a “prayer circle”, but that whole world is dismissed lightly and quickly as parental quirkiness. Cath’s and Wren’s dad tries to make some rules for Wren, the out of control daughter, but the whole stern parent thing comes out of nowhere. I can’t imagine any eighteen year old who has been as neglected as Wren and Cath have been listening to the lecture Wren’s dad gives or adhering to his sudden burst of regulations and injunctions.

So we come back to a world without authority. Without a moral framework. Why is it wrong for one of the characters in the novel to plagiarize? Because Cath doesn’t like it? Why is OK for Cath and her roommate to badmouth and make fun of all the freshmen in the cafeteria? Because it makes them feel better about themselves and because they’re witty when they do it? Why is it wrong for Wren to get drunk every weekend and drink herself into oblivion? Because it feels bad? Why is it right for Cath and Levi to make out in his bedroom? Because it feels good? Why do I want to read details of these make-out sessions? Because . . . I can’t really think of any good reasons. (I skimmed . . . again.)

I agree with this essay by Shannon Hale, in which she argues that YA novels should be written for teen readers, not adults who just want the teenagers in the books to hurry up and grow up. I’m not advocating for the teens in this book to grow up already and have their worldview and ethics all figured out. I just want them to have something, preferably Christianity, but something, to push against, to wrestle with, and possibly to grow into. All they have in these books is empty air and secularist posing. It’s sad and it makes me tired, no matter how good the writing may be. And I fear for our kids who are going to be even more jaded and exhausted with the shadow boxing and with the vacuum of virtue and moral standards before they ever get to be adults.

This post is not so much a review of the books as it is a reflection on the world we live in. Read the books and see what you think. I will admit that I will be thinking about Eleanor and Park and Cath and Levi and Wren for a long time. I would be praying for them if they were real people. I’m saddened to think that they probably are real people.

One thought on “Rainbow Rowell and the World with No Rules

  1. I stopped reading both of these books when I realized that even though they were super-super popular and supposedly among the best books of the year, they just weren’t for me.

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