ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
One of the facets of readathon that I love the most is learning about new books to read. In particular, many of the participants read Young Adult novels for the event, and those are the books I never gravitate toward on my own. This was the case with Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. It showed up on dozens of readathon updates throughout the full 24-hour event last spring, and with that much mention by that many readers I had to investigate. It took only the fantastic cover image and one Amazon review to convince me to read the book.
“They sit in awkward silence every day until Park notices that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder; he begins to slide them closer to her side of the seat and thus begins their love story. Their relationship grows gradually—making each other mixed tapes (it is 1986 after all) and discussing X-Men characters—until they both find themselves looking forward to the bus ride more than any other part of the day. This is a book about two people who just really, really like each other and who believe that they can overcome any obstacle standing in the way of their happiness.” – Caley Anderson, via Amazon
I knew I’d relate to Eleanor – the “big” girl with wild hair and a funky crazy fashion sense who doesn’t fit in at her new high school – and the mid-80s setting sealed the deal for me. My own experience in high school was similar in that I was also the new girl who saw herself as “big” and assumed her size made her reprehensible, leading me to develop great social anxiety hidden amidst sarcasm and a “good girl” complex. Like Eleanor, I never saw beauty in myself. But then again, I never had a “Park” in my life.
At 16, Park has his own struggles with feeling isolated and misunderstood. His half-Korean ethnicity makes him automatically different in his Omaha, Nebraska, suburb, and his geeky love of comics and alternative music only adds to the alienation. Yet he has also grown up with the kids at his school so there’s a level of tolerance that keeps him insulated. Until Eleanor sits beside him on the bus one day and everything in his world changes. Little by little, Eleanor & Park lean into each other – first by sharing interests and then by a physical magnetism that catches them off-guard but feels natural to pursue. As the story progress through a single year, the two explore the highs and lows of first love in the midst of socioeconomic differences and the too-real challenges of bullying and abuse.
The scenes that make Eleanor & Park so difficult to read (and caused one community to ban the book from its school library) are the very scenes that make the book so important. The book is authentic. It’s true that I didn’t enjoy being assaulted by paragraphs of profanity in the first pages, but as the story continued I remembered my own world at 16. Such language, such moronic behavior, surrounded me, too. The romance between Eleanor and Park was vivid and sweet and sexy and honest, and not one time did it seem gratuitous or racy. Eleanor’s world of poverty and abuse was genuine and not nearly as descriptive as it could have been. It is exactly such realism that makes this book so beautiful. And it’s exactly the kind of book I’d recommend to high school teens (and adults, as well).
Eleanor & Park is an important book. It’s a story that speaks to all of us “misfits” who struggle(d) in high school, who want desperately to find someone who understands us and accepts us as we are. Maybe even love us. This book sparks hard – and necessary – conversations, but it’s also an unpretentious love story with much to say about life. Such rich characters as Eleanor and Park should not be overlooked.
I chose the audiobook format of Eleanor & Park because I could obtain it immediately from my library and not wait for weeks to find a copy. And now I highly recommend the audio version! The book is read by two voices – one female, one male – to mirror the changing voices in the books chapters, and it is this audial shift that brings the book to life so vividly. Rather than reading the story, I felt I was hearing it from the couple who experienced it. Such an experience served to heighten the emotion and ground the narrative even further.
Maybe I’m not attracted to real girls, he’d thought at the time. Or maybe, he thought now, he’d just not recognized those other girls. The way a computer would spit out a disc if it didn’t recognize the formatting.
When he touched Eleanor’s hand, he recognized her. He knew. — Chapter 15: PARK
“You can ask me why I need you,” he whispered, “but I don’t know. I just know that I do.
“I miss you, Eleanor. I want to be with you all the time. You’re the smartest girl I’ve ever met. And the funniest. And everything you do surprises me.
“And I wish I could say that those are the reasons I like you because that would make me sound like a really evolved human being. But I think it’s got as much to do with your hair being red and your hands being soft and the fact that you smell like homemade birthday cake.” — Chapter 19: PARK
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