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Eleanor and Park, Ready Player One: 1980s Pop Culture in Young Adult Fiction

From MTV to punk rock, Star Wars to Dirty Dancing, Pac-Man to the Rubik’s Cube, the 1980s has left an indelible mark on American culture that elicits strong nostalgia. Two rising stars in the young adult space, Rainbow Rowell and Ernest Cline, have integrated their respective passions for 1980s pop culture into their strong debut works of young adult fiction. It is this passion for the 1980s and their twin messages of surviving hardship in the teens that bring these two otherwise distinct works together.

ready_player_one_new_cover1Set in 2044, Ready Player One transports readers to a precariously deteriorated United States, riddled with poverty, global warming, and resource shortages. Technology, however, has evolved into a reality-bending escape for the disgruntled masses. The Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS) system, originally developed by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow as a massive multiplayer online simulated reality game, has become a better, alternate version of reality.

Trained from his infancy by the OASIS’s educational programs, our hero Wade Watts feels more comfortable in the digital world than the physical one. Dogged by poverty, death, and abusive relations, Wade wanders through life listlessly until an unexpected media event gives him a purpose and an identity.

Upon his untimely death, the reclusive tech billionaire James Halliday unleashes one final culture-altering revelation. He has hidden inside the OASIS an Easter egg that will give the person who first finds it a controlling share of his multi-trillion dollar company, the world, and his entire fortune. The egg, however, is protected by a series of gates and keys that can only be located and passed with a preternatural knowledge of Halliday’s driving passions: 1980s pop culture and classic video games.

Like most of Earth’s population, Wade Watts embarks on the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg. What follows in an entrancing series of puzzles and riddles that will enchant those with expert and novice knowledge of classic video games and 1980s pop culture. Cline is clearly an expert on his subject, reigning over Ready Player One‘s plot like James Halliday dominates the author’s fictional version of 2044. Mingled with this expertise is an action-packed storyline and a surprisingly believable outlook for the future of our society. Cline’s worldbuilding is so fantastic that one feels much like the hero Wade Watts, transported to another reality entirely, only via the pages of a book instead of an OASIS console.

Equally winning are Cline’s characters. While, from the description above, one could easily extrapolate the classic hero’s journey plotline, Cline takes Ready Player One into another stratosphere entirely. The author develops an extremely heart-felt relationship between Watts and two individuals he meets in the OASIS: “H”, his best friend and fellow gunter, and Art3mis, a love interest and gunter celebrity. Ready Player One gains an extra layer of dramatic flair as Watts and the reader wait to discover the true identities of his inner OASIS circle. A truly villainous rival only serves as the final layer that cements this otherwise amazing book into a fully spectacular read.

All in all, Ready Player One is one of the most fantastic science fiction works published in recent memory. It comfortably spans young adult and adult science fiction, appealing to both sets of readers. Cline is the genuine article with a real gift for storytelling and all the accoutrements needed to make Ready Player One a five star read.

If Ready Player One deals with both hero’s journey problems and teenage tribulations, Eleanor and Park solidly channels the problem novels of classic young adult fiction with a modern twist. It’s a novel set in an evocatively written rendition of 1986, with only the stirrings of first love to help the heroine Eleanor escape her bitter reality.

eleanor and park Rowell pushes the envelope, taking readers outside of their comfort zones on multiple levels. On a basic conceptual level, she gives readers a classic story with unlikely protagonists. A tall, stocky, bullied redhead from an abusive family and a skinny, short half-Korean boy from an idyllic American middle class family seem, at first glance, an unlikely pair of friends and certainly an unusual romantic hero and heroine. While many young adult books claim to be stories about outcasts, Rowell presents readers with the genuine articles.

From this launch pad, Rowell unfolds their romance like brief, emotive clippings from an old yearbook. Constantly flipping from the hero’s perspective to the heroine’s, Rowell’s narrative style strings together a series of intense moments into a cohesive whole. While jarring at first, Rowell’s style in Eleanor and Park leaves readers with a powerful, sensual reminder of what it is like to be young and in love.

This being said, the relationship between Eleanor and Park unfurls with surprising realism. Unlike the insta-love that plagues many young adult romance books, the first exchange between the couple on the school bus is anything but love at first sight. Park slowly, begrudgingly adopts the unruly Eleanor like one might a stray cat off the street. He leaves her treats on the bus seat–comic books and music–that gradually warm her chilly facade and friendship springs from these mutual passions.

As much as their interests unite them, however, Eleanor and Park are also drawn together by the feeling of being outcasts in a high school society that either violently rejects them or only begrudgingly accepts their presence. They become each other’s light in an otherwise unforgiving world, and this positive power they have over one another grows into a fleeting sense of love and affection.

Eleanor and Park has been criticized–and even banned–for the darker forces that the hero and heroine overcome and Rowel’s frank–if not explicit–exploration of teenage sexuality. While on the more extreme end of realism, Eleanor and Park is an important type of book for teens to read with an overwhelmingly positive message about the difference a good friend can make in life.

Rowell’s excellent prose pulls her message, characters, and compelling plot together to make Eleanor and Park another superb young adult book. At this rate, Rowell is poised to become a John Green-esque figure in her own nerdy subsection of contemporary young adult fiction.


~ Michelle


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