A couple of weeks ago, I ranked all of John Green’s books (so far) for you. So, speaking of YA authors who have been very talked about in recent years, let’s rank books by Rainbow Rowell. (She has a couple of short stories out as well, but I’ll leave those aside for now.)
Before I begin, two caveats: Rainbow Rowell’s books aren’t actually all young adult, and I quite like all of them (even though I will probably point out their flaws). (That’s my prerogative as a reviewer, right?)
#1. Eleanor & Park (2013)
I feel completely unsure about the ranking of the rest of this list, but completely sure about Eleanor & Park‘s place on it. To sum it up, it doesn’t necessarily sound like much: it’s a love story about the two titular characters falling in love, set in high school in the late 80s. Eleanor is the new girl; Park is the more established boy who notices her. Like many realistically-set YA books, it deals with a variety of issues (abuse, bullying, sizeism, racism). But unlike some other novels of its type, it never feels tired in the patterns it does retread, and the characters never feel less than real. The writing is charming and heartwarming and heartbreaking. (There are some times when the time period setting feels slightly iffy/off, in terms of slang and pop culture awareness, but I’m not an expert on the late 80s—I could be wrong, or if I’m not, it didn’t overly interrupt my experience, and the audience of these books is not likely to be troubled by it, either.) This is a terrible pitch on my part, but you should definitely read this book. I rarely want so much for two characters to be happy.
From here on out, we’re going to have a few toss-ups.
#2. Attachments (2011)
Attachments has a conceit that is both amusing and actually creepy: it’s about a guy who falls in love with a woman at his workplace by reading her emails to her work friend. (In his defense, it starts because reading flagged emails is his job.) To the book’s credit, the narrative (and the protagonist) both acknowledge this is not okay, although at the same time it pitches that we root for them together, of course, so it’s an acknowledge-but-not-really-deal-with situation. Which is probably the biggest flaw.
Other than that, Attachments is pretty charming—I don’t know if it’s necessarily more charming than the books below, but subjectively, I probably put it here because I related to it most. It’s one of Rowell’s adult novels about people in their late twenties, it’s set in 1999 (which totally rings my nostalgia bell), the protagonist isn’t really sure what he’s doing with his life other than playing D&D with his friends, and his love interest is struggling with a dead-end relationship and the sunken cost fallacy. (Oh, how I have felt all these feelings.) If you are a late-twenties geek with a sense of “where is my life going?” and nostalgia for the late 90s, this book is for you. If not, it’s probably not going to be #2 on your list. But this is my list. Sorry.
#3. Fangirl (2013)
Fangirl could perhaps fall in the realm of new adult, if you like—the protagonist Cath is entering her first year of university, and terrified of how everything’s changing (moving away from home, splitting up with her twin, and moving away from safe relationships into new, scary ones). Cath is obsessed with a book series that reads as an analogue to Harry Potter, and she’s a big name fan writing a fanfic that continues the canon and unites her favourite ship. And that (and her sister, and her not-well father) used to be the focal point of her life, only now she has to expand her world (and her writing horizons). This is a coming-of-age from the perspective of a consummate socially awkward geek in creative writing, and I have felt these feelings almost exactly, although it was a while ago now. (I didn’t mature as quickly as Cath nor have I ever been a big name fan or had a twin, but I also didn’t have as much trouble switching from fanfiction to reality or with reading social cues, haha.) Fangirl is a charming little book with vivid characters, and it might be better than Attachments, but Cath is just so oblivious. I don’t know. If you have ever been a fandom nerd adjusting to the outside world, you will find yourself in this.
#4. Carry On (2015)
Carry On is a good book that might deserve better than this place, but it let me down in a way: Carry On is the title of Cath’s epic fanfic in Fangirl, and Simon and Baz (and their world) are the subject of it. So Carry On seems like it ought to be that story. Only it doesn’t seem to align exactly with the allusions to this story in Fangirl or with Cath’s style, so that aspect of it was disappointing, because I was prepared to get really meta and love it.
Other than that, Carry On feels like a loose Harry Potter/some other magical worlds parody that calls out some of the ridiculousness from those plots, premises, and settings; the characters are archetypes that stand in for the characters who usually populate these universes. Mostly it’s fun, but it’s a bit too long to sustain itself: the holes in its own plot/premise/setting start to rankle, and the lack of dimension in the characters starts to itch, since the book isn’t short enough to excuse those shortcuts. (Baz feels like he has some depth, but that’s also because he’s working against the notion of characters like Draco Malfoy, who is always very deep in fandom but didn’t get that development in the series.)
Don’t get me wrong—Carry On is a reasonably good time, especially if the references land for you. But it’s not all it could be, and since I’m a) an avid reader of young adult fantasy, b) a person who lived in the Harry Potter fandom as a teen, c) a reader of Fangirl, and d) a fan of meta, this let me down enough to drop in my esteem.
#5. Landline (2014)
Landline probably doesn’t get the fairest shake from me because the feelings in it, although they read as genuine, are further out of my reach: this book’s protagonist, Georgie, is a 39-year-old mother of two whose marriage is suffering because of her commitment to her career and her best friend. While her husband is gone and she’s freaking out, she picks up the old telephone in her bedroom at her mother’s house—and she’s talking to her husband from fifteen years ago, and wondering how her life would be different if it had all never happened, and wondering how they lost what was once so good.
The mild time travel in this book is never explained, which is probably good, since it’s a slight interruption into an otherwise mundane universe. Georgie’s struggle with the paths she could have taken (and the choices she made) is easy to relate to and genuine, although a lot of it circles back to “but then I wouldn’t have these children,” which—while totally understandable!—also feels like a narrative dead-end that proves to us she won’t try to change her past, leaving that conflict a moot point, so we can only wonder what she’ll do with her future. But she keeps picking up the phone, so that’s a moot point, too. The only thing we don’t know is what the man in question, Neal, will do. And since we can’t get anything from his current perspective and only get to know young-Neal, solving that mystery isn’t really much fun, since we don’t have clues. (Like how solving a murder-mystery plot is only interesting if the character who did it is at least on our radar, if there was some way we could’ve picked up how suspicious they were. Solving the Neal mystery is like throwing a dart blindfolded. He has a history of love for her, but he’s fed up. Who knows!)
This book is charming anyway, because the characters are drawn in vividly over years of time and memory, but the flaws in its main conflicts and its distance from my experience are probably what leave it at the bottom for me.
And that’s it for my ranking of all of the books by Rainbow Rowell (so far). I totally understand if you disagree—except on Eleanor & Park, because come on. Let me know if there’s anyone else you’d like to see me rank (here or on Twitter!), and I’ll talk to you next week!