It’s August 1986 and new girl Eleanor is doomed from the minute she walked onto the bus. Not only is she chubby and red-haired, but the men’s shirts and ill-fitting pants she wears scream ‘bully me.’ If that was the worst of her problems, Eleanor would be relieved. It is her abusive step-father and the deep poverty in which her family lives that she will conceal at all costs. When there’s not even enough money for Eleanor to buy a toothbrush and Eleanor begins an uneasy and unexpected friendship with fellow bus-rider Park, her situation becomes increasingly difficult to hide.
Unlike Eleanor, Park fits in in spite of his half-Korean background. He spends his time on his walkman listening to the musicians whose pictures often feature on his graphic tees. A typical Park day would be filled with recording mix tapes, teasing his little brother, arguing with his father, and catching his parents making out. That is until the fateful day he begrudgingly slid over to let Eleanor sit by him on the bus. From there slowly and somewhat painfully Park and Eleanor connect through Watchmen comics and The Smiths until they fall hopelessly into a young love that is doomed from the start.
I’m not exactly sure how I heard about Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel Eleanor & Park, but with a first name like Rainbow and two gorgeously minimal and graphic covers by artist Debbie Powell*, I think my question has been answered. Since Eleanor & Park was released in the UK earlier this year, there has already been some buzz in the blogosphere, but since the US release isn’t until 2013, when the egalley popped up on Netgalley, I didn’t hesitate to request a copy. I’ll just go ahead and say now that I’m going to need a finished copy next February. Not just for the exceptional cover design but for how perfectly it represents the characters and their story.
Another aspect of this novel that stood out: the title, which aptly describes a book which is equally about both Eleanor and Park. The perspective alternates between the two of them from the beginning, sometimes changing after one sentence, to show reactionary viewpoints, or as a replay of an event from the other person’s perspective. Although it’s clear from the outset that Eleanor got all of the problems and Park almost none, this format worked well for capturing the misunderstandings of first love. If it wasn’t obvious, this is about the Eleanor and Park who fall in love hoping their relationship will last but realizing that it probably won’t. What may not be as evident is the book’s weightier subjects. Eleanor’s real life problems are not glossed over or sugar-coated, but are tempered by the many endearing moments along the way. Like when Park realizes that Eleanor is reading his Watchmen comics over her shoulder and waits to turn the page. Or when Park loans Eleanor batteries so she can listen to his Joy Division tape over and over. Or when Eleanor and Park go on their first date in his mother’s Impala. Their relationship in all its mundane details feels sincere. A phone conversation between Eleanor and Park that illustrates the well known uncertain, consuming feeling at the beginning of a relationship:
They were both quiet.
“Ask me why I like you,” she finally said.
He felt himself smile. He felt like something warm had spilled in his heart. “Eleanor,” he said, just because he liked saying it, “why do you like me?”
“I don’t like you.”
He waited. And waited…
Then he started to laugh. “You’re kind of mean,” he said.
“Don’t laugh. It just encourages me.”
He could hear that she was smiling, too. He could picture her. Smiling.
“I don’t like you, Park,” she said again. “I…” She stopped. “I can’t do this.”
“So far, just for me.”
I’m afraid I’ll say too much,” she said.
“I’m afraid I’ll tell you the truth.”
“You don’t like me…” he said, leading her, pressing the base of the phone into his lowest rib.
“I don’t like you, Park,” she said, sounding for a second like she actually meant it. “I…” –her voice nearly disappeared—“think I live for you.”
It will be hard to forget these two, especially Eleanor, who is one-of-kind quirky in both her appearance and her conflicting pride and vulnerability. While Eleanor’s complicated relationship with her mother and Park’s disagreements with his father could’ve seen more development, ultimately that’s not what Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is about. Even with an open ending I was content, and I think anyone who enjoys bittersweet (emphasis on the sweet) contemporary YA will think so too.
*Thanks for the cover post, Capillya!
Alpha Reader review - “Eleanor and Park was a bit of a letdown – and trust me when I say that no one is more surprised at my disappointment than me.”
Giraffe Days review – “Rowell’s ability to create realism, and believable characters, to bring to life a story that is at once new and alien and also deeply familiar, is quite something.”
Not Enough Bookshelves review – “The real beauty of the story though, is that Rainbow Rowell shows how falling in love with someone, and having them love you back, ignites you.”
That Cover Girl review – “Eleanor & Park … deserves all of the description that a heart-wrenching first love brings, because for me, that’s what it definitely delivered.”
Young Adult Anonymous review – “I don’t know who Boba Fett is and I missed the snap, crackle, pop of Attachments, but I think an audience would appreciate the low, steady beat of Eleanor & Park.”