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The Book That Changed My Life: A Couple of Misfits

The Book That Changed My LifeIt’s obvious from the very beginning of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park that the two of them are a couple of misfits. I couldn’t imagine how their worlds would overlap, much less merge, and I bet Eleanor and Park didn’t either. From being weird, misfitty friends, they gradually start to find each other attractive, though it takes ages for them to act on it. After all, not only are they misfits, both have terrible self-esteem issues. Eleanor tries to fight her own longing by steadfastly assuring herself that just being friends with Park is enough. But she can’t stop thinking about him, the way his lips turn up at the corners when he smiles, the way he smells like “sweat and bar soap.”

Finally, sitting together in the back of the school bus, Park fiddles with the fringe on the scarf Eleanor has tied around her wrist. As they talk, he gently slides his fingers into Eleanor’s open palm. Park’s POV: “Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.” Eleanor’s POV: “Disintegrated. Like something had gone wrong beaming her onto the Starship Enterprise. If you’ve ever wondered what that feels like, it’s a lot like melting — but more violent.”

Words are wondrous things, strung together right, and as I read that scene, an evening from my sophomore year of high school came hurtling back. I was walking with Cary D. late Friday night after a party, under tree-shadowed streetlights. This was Cary of the curly hair, lanky body, and soft, tender voice. We weren’t supposed to be out like this, away from parents and other kids, loose on the city’s empty streets. We ducked into a narrow lane and, halfway along, his hand brushed mine. As I stretched my fingers to meet his, he clasped my hand. Our strides synced up and we walked and walked those quiet streets. All the while, a current buzzed and tingled from his hand, shot up my arm, and electrified my whole body.

Back in real time, the novel clutched in my hands, I thought: how did Rowell do that to me? And then: how can I do that to my readers? After reading Eleanor & Park, I wanted to up my own game, get as close to this kind of intensity as I could.

I have an additional challenge: as a writer of nonfiction, I must stick scrupulously to factual accuracy. I start by searching for the emotional core of the story. While researching, I read widely, scanning written documents for slips of quicksilver emotions hidden in long, boring paragraphs and chapters. In interviewing, I’m patient, listening closely, asking for details, all the while going as deep as the person will let me.

I take these feelings, these hard-won specifics, and work them into the narrative arc to create close-to-the-bone scenes. With the watchdog of accuracy sitting heavily on my shoulder, it would be easy to stiffen up as I write. I’ve learned to relax into a storyteller’s vernacular, careful not to create a distant formality with my words.

Just as I felt reading Rowell’s novel, I want readers to open my books and feel they are holding something alive, something as delicate as a butterfly, as powerful as a heartbeat. I’m hoping to stir up feelings they know, and feelings they’ve only glimpsed. I’m hoping they will fall in between the words so deeply and unexpectedly, they’ll disintegrate. It’s simple. Just like melting, only more astonishing.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life. Read Rainbow Rowell’s Boston Globe-Horn Book Award speech for Eleanor & Park.

Elizabeth Partridge About Elizabeth Partridge

Elizabeth Partridge's latest book is Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam. Her book Marching to Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary (both Viking) won the 2008 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction.

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