As with Catcher in the Rye, I found the defining draws of both of these novels were the narrative voice. I fact, I suspect the importance of the narrator is key in YA realistic fiction in a way that it might not be in genre fiction, where world-building can often be accomplished effectively with a third-person narrator. In realistic fiction, the process and progress of a first-person narrator is often the hook: out of first 10 books listed in The Next Big Thing: Contemporary/Realistic Fiction, 9 were first-person narrators, the only one that wasn’t being a non-traditional narrative told through a variety of formats.
I certainly found that Hazel’s voice was what drew me into The Fault in Our Stars: I can recognize the exact moment that Hazel, as a narrator, truly materialized for me with the throwaway confession that she’s “a bit of a Victorian Lady. Fainting-wise.” Hazel’s narration is a fantastic introduction to the realities of sick teens in a world where illness if often spoken of in hushed tones, with a well-developed sense of humour. Similarly, the two narrators of Eleanor and Park were unique voices, clearly defined by Rowell’s particular attention to the details of uncensored thought. The first time the titular characters hold hands, Eleanor, feeling paralyzed by the sensation, muses: “Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her. That would be awesome.”
These books conclude their stories the way many teen romances wrap up, with an ending; sure, you might spend your life with your high school sweetheart, but you probably won’t. Life gets in the way; death, moving away, a thousand possible outside forces on top of a thousand personal reasons; a plethora of chances to be cut short. But they still matter—the happened and they changed lives. The impermanent relationships of these two novels end, but without the sense inevitability that lends itself to flippancy. Short-lived teen relationships are treated with the respect they seldom get; the romance genre tends toward stories about getting together, not being pulled apart—beginnings, not endings; and god knows in real life people use the potential impermanence of young relationships to dismiss their importance. In his New York Times review of Eleanor and Park, John Green wrote that the book reminded him of “what it’s like to be young and in love,” but the important thing for both of these books is that they’re written not for the nostalgia of those remembering (though nostalgia can certainly be considered a brilliant byproduct), but for the recognition of those experiencing.