Park thinks she is big, awkward, and wearing clothes that are a mess. Eleanor think he’s either a devil or stupid. He swears at her, she frowns at him. Here is the most unromantic start to a romance I have ever encountered in YA literature.
In the midst of the raucous student atmosphere at the back of the school bus, Eleanor reads Park’s comics with a covert sideways gaze, forging a silent intimacy between them. Once Park is on to her, he turns the pages more slowly and holds the pages wider on his lap for her to see. A full eighth of the book in, they still have not spoken to one another from their adjacent seats, but at her bus stop, Park hands Eleanor the half-finished Watchmen comic. The romance, unlike any you’ve ever read, is on.
Her voice in class has a cool defiance and Park thinks she recites a poem in English like it’s a living thing she has just let out. The kids call her Raghead and Bozo and steal her clothes in gym, until, nearly midstory, heretofore mild-mannered Park kicks his friend Steve in the mouth with a jump reverse straight out of Karate Kid. By the time the story ends, Eleanor escapes her abusive stepfather with Park’s help, but they may never see each other again. He writes her every day but Eleanor puts a stop to it, unable to bear the thought that Park would ever love her less than he did on the day they say goodbye.
Rowell succeeds in making the unlikely tale utterly credible, in no small part by observing the protagonists so closely that they seem to become friends of the reader. Here is a book that redefines first love; redefines romance, period. The author breaks new ground for outsiders everywhere! If you missed it when it came out from St. Martin’s Press last year, like I did, go read it now.
June Costa’s art is her life, and she crafts her life to be her art. This radical theme resonates through the character and through the cataclysmic events that unfold within one year in her society, events at whose center she stands, an artist hero such as I have not seen expressed before in literature. June Costa makes public art in a city of future Brazil, art that might be described as techno spectacle, everything from graffiti that transforms mountains to holo murals that carry scent. In her resistance to governmental limits, this protagonist changes herself and affects her whole society.
The author does such a job of world-building that I feel I could book a ticket to Palmares Tres. Not a dystopian setting, but rather, a post-apocalyptic setting, June’s society has started over. There is conflict between the government-sanctioned isolationist policy and the protesting technophiles, labeled extremists by the powers-that-be, the Aunties who can rule for centuries. June is from but not of, their upper tier way of thinking.
Alaya Johnson uses an interspersed second narrative voice, daring if not consistently effective. This is the voice of Enki, born poor and dark and wild and creative, voted Summer Prince by the people for his dazzling dance art. When June becomes artistically involved with Enki, he becomes the catalyst for her questioning her artistic ethics regarding, for example, art’s ownership, the cost of artistic defiance, and how to perceive cultural patterns when society is changing so rapidly. Together, June and Enki make political art. Or is it authentic art, which happens to speak to the people in a political time?
Is The Summer Prince at heart a story of the struggle to balance freedom and security? Is it a profound love story, with an array of multicultural characters as the Lovers? Is the core of the story an artist’s coming of age about the power of her craft? Is the Summer Prince a parable about the responsibilities of power? Yes and yes and yes and yes. Besides life as art, other high concepts in this novel stretch the reader in regard to gender, sex and relationship boundaries, about death and aging, about technologies that augment and modify but ultimately destroy the body. There are plot point confusions, but for me, the energy of the imaginings easily lifts the story past them. I look forward to more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.
Mary Oliver’s poem, Sunrise, seems fitting for this time of the stirrings of new life. I share also, her poem Spring, because in February we celebrate Love, and to me one of its most hopeful forms is the animal joy evoked by the lengthening sunlight.
February 2 honors the turning of the sun year’s Wheel to the halfway point between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. The fire festival of Candlemas is also known as Holy Bridget’s Day, and as Imbolc, which translates variously as in the belly or ewe’s milk, for the time of lambing.
On that day this year, I made merry with five sisters around a ceremonial fire, and we used the inspiration of the flames to transform and pray for the world, each of us in our own way renewing our passionate love of this life. I revitalized my commitment to my creative work, praying that the instrument of my Being make beautiful word music in the world!
May this time of initiation brighten you, also, and may you illumine your corner of the world.