You would think the picture of coastal Italy on the cover would have tipped me off, but it didn’t. So when I read the first few paragraphs and saw I was dealing with an Italian man named Pasquale who may or may not endure an unrequited/tragic love, picture a perfectly executed forehead slap and shoulders drop combination. I really thought I had inadvertently picked The Shoemaker’s Wife, parte seconda.
Instead, it was a quirky multi-voice Hollywood epic about love (beautiful) and abandonment (ruins) and doing what is right in a world that is often very wrong. It’s worth reading for the Richard Burton cameo alone.
The book started off slowly for me, but that might be because I was afraid I picked a book too similar to what we’ve read before. Once I realized that, 1960s setting aside, this wasn’t really historical fiction (sigh of relief!), I was able to enjoy myself a bit more. From the beginning, though, the book read like a movie. If it was Jess Walter’s intention to write a book about Hollywood that felt like a movie, then well played, sir. The movie rights were recently optioned so we can expect Hollywood to strip the magic from the pages and produce a lackluster facsimile sometime with the next 2 years.
Aside: please skip to the bottom of that article and read the author’s “top choices” for principal roles.
How on earth is Daniel Day Lewis going to play a 19 year old Italian? I love how the author says that with prosthesis and makeup he can be made to look like the older Pasquale. Daniel Day Lewis is maybe 10 years younger than Pasquale at the end of the book. He’ll need prosthesis, makeup, a crate of duct tape, and an anti-gravity machine to look like the younger Pasquale. Don’t get me started on Ashley Olsen. It’s the most bizarre casting wish list I have ever read.
I finished the book over a week ago, and I’ve struggled thinking about what to write since then. It’s been on every critic’s top list, it’s being made into a movie, and everyone loves it. I liked it, but I’m not gushing. Next year, I won’t remember much about it. My least favorite part is what everyone else loved: the epilogue that wasn’t called an epilogue that went on for 25 pages. Again, this seemed like the final few minutes of a movie and for a book, it was a bow too neatly tied. It was something I would expect from a romance novel.
No doubt many of you have seen or heard about the Miley Cyrus VMA performance debacle. She allowed herself to be objectified for reasons only she can answer, though I can promise her that if she believes sexualizing herself in front of millions of people allows her to retain control she is sorely mistaken. That is a myth. Objectification is objectification. Beating someone to the punch doesn’t eliminate the consequences.
It’s interesting to note that very little has been said about Robin Thicke, a married, 36 year old father. For some reason Miley is the easy target, though it wasn’t her wearing the black and white striped suit.
I’m not one to defend Miley, but I’m disappointed to see so much emphasis placed on her body in those shorts. Comparing her to the back-end of a turkey helps no one, doesn’t address the issue of early sexualization and objectification in the media, or make any sort of strides in improving our toxic body culture.
I spent months trying to recover from one woman in a health food store. What Miley is going through, I couldn’t survive. (And, yes, some of it she brought on herself.)
This is why I decided to make Eating Mindfully the book club pick for September. I was already considering it, but this whole turkey butt thing was the push I needed to make a final decision. It’s a book Diane has asked me to read for the last year. I’ve put it off because it’s a book on intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is impossible. Well, not impossible–just really, really hard.
Join me in reading something really, really hard–if not impossible?
Ursula Todd’s life is a an Ouroboros, a snake eating its tail. She dies, she comes back. Each time she comes back she is Ursula Todd, a recreated version of the Ursula Todd that came before, only stronger. With each life she goes farther. Her first life (that we know of) ends before it begins. This is Life After Life.
11 February 1910
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
Dr. Fellowes should have been here,” Sylvie moaned. “Why isn’t he here yet? Where is he?” Big dewdrop pearls of sweat on her skin, a horse nearing the end of a hard race. The bedroom fire stoked like a ship’s furnace. The thick brocade curtains drawn tightly against the enemy, the night. The black bat.
“Yer man’ll be stuck in the snow, I expect, ma’am. It’s sure dreadful wild out there. The road will be closed.”
Sylvie and Bridget were alone in their ordeal. Alice, the parlor maid, was visiting her sick mother. And Hugh, of course, was chasing down Isobel, his wild goose of a sister, à Paris. Sylvie had no wish to involve Mrs. Glover, snoring in her attic room like a truffling hog. Sylvie imagined she would conduct proceedings like a parade-ground sergeant major. The baby was early. Sylvie was expecting it to be late like the others. The best-laid plans, and so on.
“Oh, ma’am,” Bridget cried suddenly, “she’s all blue, so she is.”
“The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.”
“Not breathing? Let me see her. We must do something. What can we do?”
“Oh, Mrs. Todd, ma’am, she’s gone. Dead before she had a chance to live. I’m awful, awful sorry. She’ll be a little cherub in heaven now, for sure. Oh, I wish Mr. Todd was here. I’m awful sorry. Shall I wake Mrs. Glover?”
The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.
She returns, dies as a toddler. She returns, dies as a child. She returns, dies as a young adult. Each death takes her further into life as she corrects the mistakes of the past with déjà vu.
This is a book I should have finished days before I had to write this post. There are too many parts of the book I need to consider because it’s possible I’m wrapped around the axle and reading into things.
Desserts, for example. Desserts, puddings, tea–whatever you want to call it, not one chapter concludes without at least one mention of something sweet. Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake) alone is mentioned 4 times at least. I may have finished the book sooner had I not looked up every single dessert I came across. It has drinking game potential, and if you’re curious I’ve created a pinterest board of all the desserts mentioned in Life After Life as well as Queen Solange because I had to know what a wooden knitting doll looked like. Desserts are typically conclusions to a meal. Did they represent the many endings Ursula Todd experienced life after life; is it a counterpoint to the typically bitter end Ursula meets; is Kate Atkinson addicted to sugar?
Ursula’s name presented another dilemma for me, where dilemma is defined as the obsessive over-thinking one does over matters of questionable importance in light of world events. Ursula (the reader, really) is reminded often that her name means ‘little bear,’ but the name Ursula is also a saint who is believed to be the Christianized version of the goddess Freyja in Norse mythology who rules the afterlife. Freyja–if I’m getting my Norse mythology right, and it’s absolutely likely that I’m not–was responsible for carrying souls onto the next life/plain/afterlife/I have no idea what.
I just realized that my circular thinking works nicely with the Ouroboros theme of the book. Well played, Kate Atkinson.
Every time Ursula dies, we return to her birth. At first, this was confusing for me, but over time I became used to the format and began to remember dates and recognize where Ursula was in history. The trick with this book is to read significant portions of it at once. At first I would stop and start, and with a narrative that goes forwards and backwards with an every changing chain of events, immersing yourself for at least a few chapters is the way to go. I quickly learned that the best time for me to set the book down was when Ursula returned to her birth. It just made things easier for me to keep straight.
Small little quibble: I do not like the jacket design, not even a little, and I love roses. The UK version is so much better. A fox on the cover!
Which brings up another dilemma I over-thought: animals. Ursula lives at Fox Corner. Her first name means little bear and her last name means fox. So, she’s strong and crafty? She is rescued by a dog at least twice. There are chickens, rabbits, and at the end, kittens. Really, it’s never ending.)
The last one I’ll touch on here is whether the rest of the family knew what Ursula was doing. Without revealing spoilers, two characters towards led me to believe they were aware of Ursula’s ability to practice her life until it was perfect.
I enjoyed the book both for it’s creative premise and because Atkinson has a clever voice. Her witticisms were fun to read. Pamela’s character (I’m pretty sure that was Ursula’s conscience) was my favorite, but I’ll leave the rest of my commentary for the comment section to avoid spoilers.
I adored everything about Eleanor & Park, including the ending. I’ll break down what I loved about this book–me, the jaded reader who assigns 3/5 stars when I’m feeling generous–in greater detail below, but first I thought I would explain how I came across my favorite book of 2013.
My nutritionist knows how much I like to read, so she recommended I read body-positive fiction. We can define body-positive in this case as characters who are overweight and still manage to win the guy/get the promotion/save the world/etc. [The definition of body-positive changes with the person, obviously. I want to be clear on that--a tall, thin, and delicately shaped woman is still a woman and isn't by inference body-negative.] She suggested was Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner. I read it.
Yeah. So, anyway.
I decided to branch out and read some more books and began looking on Goodreads for lists featuring books with plus-size or chubby or rubenesque or soft protagonists and found a couple. Eleanor & Park was down towards the bottom of one of the lists. It had a cute cover, so I clicked on it. When I saw it was young adult, I made that ‘just swallowed a lemon’ face and moved on. But I really thought the cover was cute and the lists were otherwise atrocious, so I caved after a week or two.
I couldn’t put it down. Here’s why.
Diversity, Reality, and Characters
Eleanor is a classically overweight high school girl in that she’s big, but not as big as she thinks she is, and her boyfriend finds her and her “negative space” more appealing than Storm or She-Hulk or “Betty Boop drawn with a heavy hand.” Her hair is a bright, curly red and she’s covered in freckles. Her clothing is frightening in its creativity, but she pulls it off because it’s not clear that her classmates realize she alters her clothing to hide her poverty as well as display her individuality.
She’s a freak, and not always by choice. She’s socially awkward and hard to be around. When Park falls in love with her, she doesn’t magically turn into someone beautiful and polished. She remains the same in appearance and affect; it’s only Park’s appreciation for who she is that changes and even after falling in love with her he doesn’t always see her through rose-colored glasses. It’s not a blind love.
Speaking of Park. He’s half-Korean, 5’4″, and slender. Thank you, Jesus.
First, Asian romantic male leads are few and far between. Second, when there is one, he’s always, always, always 7’2″ and 275 pounds of sinuous muscle. I’m not saying Asian men can’t be tall and ripped. Obviously, they can. (Newsflash: so can Latin men.) I’m saying it was refreshing to read a male romantic lead who didn’t battle his perceived romantic rivals in hand-to-hand combat and then toss aside their broken, bloodied carcases so that he could urinate a proprietary circle around his fair maiden using his “so enormous!” staff of life.
Long live Beta Heroes.
The Dialogue, The Writing
Yes, the first chapter was littered with f-bombs. But, you know what? I remember most of the boys on my high school football team talking like that. It seemed realistic to me. Teenagers cussing, trying to be adults and using words to seem more mature when what they are talking about is anything but. The rest of the book is not like that, thought there is mature language and concepts. (No sex.)
There is a scene where Park holds Eleanor’s hand for the first time that is so wrought with tension I swear you will be transported back to the first time someone held your hand. I read that scene several times because it described that feeling of euphoria so well, and not once did the characters feel electric sparks shoot from their finger tips and radiate up their arms. [sidenote to all other writers: stop with the electric sparks and touching. We're humans, not conduits.]
1986 Omaha, Nebraska. While they both live in a working class neighborhood, Eleanor is at the poverty line because of her abusive, alcoholic step-father. She doesn’t own a toothbrush. She brushes her teeth with salt packets from the cafeteria and while at first that sounds hard to believe (who doesn’t have a toothbrush?) you soon realize it for what it is: another way for her step father to degrade and control her.
That sounds unbelievably sad and like nothing I should relish, but I loved that the financial divide wasn’t so great between the two. I’m not a fan of the rich man swooping in to save his Eliza Doolittle.
The Music. The Music!
I hear Eleanor and Park may be made into a movie. This fills me with optimistic dread. I’m suspicious of how Hollywood will handle a chubby redhead and a slender Asian. The soundtrack, however, should be excellent.
Love on a Farm Boy’s Wages by XTC is the song Park was listening to when the book opens.
XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus.
Park pressed his headphones into his ears.
Tomorrow he was going to bring Skinny Puppy or the Misfits. Or maybe he’d make a special bus tape with as much screaming and wailing on it as possible.
He could get back to New Wave in November, after he got his driver’s license.
–Eleanor and Park
The Only Thing That Bugged Me, But Only A Little
This book is marketed as a young adult novel, and presumably a girl Eleanor’s age is the target demographic. I disagree, and it bothers me that publishers assume that young characters automatically mean young adult. I’m trying to think of every 16 year old girl I know, and I can’t think of one who would catch 75% of the humor as it relates to 1980s culture. I also don’t know that most 16 year olds–who themselves are experiencing first love–would understand the nuances explored in Park and Eleanor’s relationship. That entire Romeo and Juliet analysis would have flown over my head in high school. So would the familial relationships and how they contributed to their thoughts and feelings on falling in love and first love.
If I read this at 16 I would have squee!d the entire time until I got to the end. Then I would have been: !!!!!. Today, as an adult woman, I think the ending is what it should be. I still want my sequel, don’t get me wrong. I hear there’s going to be one of those, too.
Okay! I’ve prattled on long enough and I haven’t even talked about my favorite parts, nor have I done any heavy lifting in the analysis department. I thought I’d save that for the comments to avoid spoilers.
Warning: Spoilers are fair game in the comments!
Image sources: most are from tumblers, which means they could be from anywhere, but you can find “direct” sources in my Eleanor and Park pinterest board. The exception to this is the 2-picture Eleanor and Park character collage I created, but the original images are in the board. The man is Korean actor, Hyun Bin.
We are heading into the holiday weekend, and for once in my life I might actually be ahead of the game! Get this: I REMEMBERED TO REMIND YOU ABOUT BOOK CLUB.
I KNOW! I’m as shocked as you are.
We’ll be discussing Eleanor and Park on Tuesday, July 9, which is plenty of time to read this book. It shouldn’t take you more than a day or two because it’s a quick read and if you went to high school in the 80s like I did, you’ll fly through it and memory lane.