Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor park FINAL updatewebSUMMARY from GoodReads:

Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

Eleanor…Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.

Park…He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises…Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

REVIEW:

I first read Fangirl, then it was time to pick up the ‘big one’, Eleanor & Park. Would it live up to its tremendous hype? Was it even possible to make me ship a couple as strongly as I shipped Levi and Cath?

I just finished reading Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. Since, I’ve been MIA for quite sometime and I haven’t done anything I open up this blog and begin typing. I don’t want the magic to fade in my mind at all before I capture at least a tiny speck of it here. And, because I am so enraptured and enthralled, perhaps you will also capture a tiny speck of the same magic emanating from my computer screen to yours.

Fangirl will always occupy a special place in my heart but Eleanor & Park has this slow, messy, beautiful, strange, broken, healing quality to it that sucked me in from the start. We’re presented with two teenage protagonists with issues and passions and insecurities of their own: the overweight and under-loved Eleanor, and the half-Korean, fully-music-obsessed Park.

Not wanting to give away any of the plot, my summary doesn’t do the book justice. Just suffice it to say it is way better than I am making it sound.

Technically, this is a Young Adult novel. This is a lovely, carefully observed novel, about the way in which we move from strangers to intimates, and vice versa—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Our so-called lovebirds meet on the school bus in Omaha in 1986. Eleanor is the new kid. She wears men’s clothes, she’s curvy, she has wild red hair, and she’s shark bait for the bullies. They do not get off to the greatest start. They’re both humiliated, cranky, and none too complimentary towards each other in their thoughts. Her mother has recently remarried, her step-father is a violent and controlling drunk. Eleanor has four younger siblings, and they all share a single small room in a tiny house in Omaha Nebraska.

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Park is half-Korean, sensitive to his oddity. Even his younger brother looks whiter than he does. He hides behind headphones and comic books on the noisy bus ride to school. The two of them meet when Park takes pity on the new girl, and offers to share his seat on the bus.

The story is told in two voices in alternating chapters so we get to know, and love, both Eleanor and Park equally. As their relationship develops and deepens we also get to know and appreciate Park’s parents, who play an important role in the story. Slowly, Rowell builds their budding friendship and growing attraction. Most of their interaction occurs on the bus at first, although they share English and History classes. It is the careful, delicate shifting of their relationship that is the book’s amazing talent. Awkwardly, they maintain a big space between them, studiously ignoring each other, but eventually finding things that connect them. Eleanor finds herself reading Park’s comics. Park notices the names of songs and bands written on her notebooks.

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These characters are placed in families that are also drawn with the same careful specificity. Eleanor’s home life bursts with the details of poverty–the safety pins that hold her clothes together, the cheap food her mother feeds them–beans and rice mostly. Park lives a more middle-class existence, with his own room, and only one brother.

Rowell seems to really “get” teenagers. Everything out of the mouths of these teens seemed authentic and true. It’s so sad as I read it because I suddenly realized that the horror that Eleanor lives in the pages of this book is likely the horror that some of the teens are currently actually living. I could have listened to Eleanor and Park talk about 80’s pop culture all the livelong day. I don’t even know what kind of shippy magic Rowell is wielding, but she made me swoon over a hand-holding scene.

Eleanor & Park also has one of the most shared, YA covers. It’s cute, and I’d seen a lot of people talk about how cute the story was, and how cute the romance was, and it was generally all rainbows and unicorns. Eleanor & Park is authentic and realistic, right down to the teenage awkwardness and self-awareness. The book captures the ways teens try to find themselves in the context of their families–what do they accept as normal, what do they chafe against. Exquisitely Rowell describes the growth of the relationship: the electric kick of the first time you hold hands with someone, the fear of being awkward at kissing, the fear of meeting the family, the way you become desperate for some privacy so you don’t have to enact your entire life in front of other people.

The plot? Well, there isn’t much, which is exactly right. It’s about how Eleanor and Park develop their relationship in the context of high school culture, and that is really enough. So Eleanor & Park is about the romance, yes, but it’s also about pushing through life, just trying to make it better in any way you can. The chapters are short and the writing style is amazing, which basically meant that I was reading while waiting in a coffee shop and eating, and giving up sleep in order to read some more. I was so invested in the characters within the first few chapters that I just had to know what they were going to do next.

This book is weird, and I mean that in the best way. Rowell has a way of putting together characters and descriptions and sentences like no one else would do. Sure, that might but some people off, but to me sinking into a Rowell novel is like sinking into a warm bath, and you just want to sigh and roll around and let all the loveliness was over you. Her descriptions are distinct because they’re honest.

Personally, I wish Rowell had dropped Eleanor’s body shame a bit. I mean, she’s got red hair and untamable curls, she’s the new kid, she’s wicked poor, gets her clothing from thrift store, and has to wear that to shreds–isn’t that enough? Did you have to make her obsess about feeling fat too? It’s not like she gets much food, even.

Basically, Rowell knows how to make me swoon, and she also knows how to make me feel. She has a way of understating really strong and dramatic things that somehow causes them to have more impact. And Eleanor. Perhaps this storyline veered a bit into melodrama, but my god, Eleanor’s horrible home situation and her nightmare of a stepfather made me ache. But it also made the tenderness and unconventionality of her relationship with Park all the more beautiful.

I loved the pace of their relationships, the safe havens they created for each other, and the healthiness of their love. It was so lovely to read about a teenage couple who seem to bring out so much good in each other. Equal parts heart-warmingly cute and heart-breakingly brutal, Eleanor & Park is kind of like that eclectic mixed tape that you need to listen to at just the right time in your life, and it will feel like it’s speaking directly to you.

With “Eleanor & Park” Rowell reminded me of what it was like to be 16 again. From insecurity ugly face and oppressive gut feeling on the first day of school, to ecstasy by making a whole night disappear with long telephone conversations about everything and nothing. It took me a single chapter, and I found myself suddenly in both forgotten and repressed teenage world again.

Here are some quotes from the book which I love. No spoilers, just hand-holding…

“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”

“The first time he’d held her hand, it felt so good that it crowded out all the bad things. It felt better than anything had ever hurt.”

“Ever since the first day they’d met, Eleanor was always seeing him in unexpected places. It was like their lives were overlapping lines, like they had their own gravity. Usually, that serendipity felt like the nicest thing the universe had ever done for her.”

“Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

As for the ending, it’s good. I won’t say whether it ends happily or tragically- no spoilers policy and all that- but it fits the book. While it’s clearly understandable, there’s just the right amount of ambiguity, and it’s really just perfect.

It’s a good book. It’s a written romance that everyone has experienced. Not only is this story directed at teens, adults will fall in love with it as well simply because we were all teenagers once. It’s worth the read. This is the type of book where readers will want curl up on my couch and devour it because everything in this story is real; teens and adults know what it’s liked to be love, to be bullied, to feel scared, and to feel that things seem hopeless.

However, this story also shows what it’s like to be crazy happy. This books has managed to transform me into the 16 year old girl I was knew and it was because of her that I feel that Eleanor and Park will have the happy ending that we all dream of.

Eleanor & Park is a novel that you’ll read and understand why people love it so much, even if it’s not your cup of tea.

What did you all think? If you’ve read this wonderful book, please share your thoughts in the comments. Anyway, if you haven’t read this book, you can find out more about Rainbow Rowell here:

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