This was my second time reading Eleanor & Park. Usually I read the books I'm going to blog about twice - that way I can mark quotes I'd like to use in my review. But I usually read books twice in a row, pretty quickly, so that I can remember all the things that struck me the first time. This time, however, I had to read it the first time and return it - there were holds on it. And that's fairly unusual - even though my public library is small, there are rarely holds lists there for more than the most popular titles. I was gratified to see the long holds list. I love when someone else in my town sees how great a book is without me having to shout it from the rooftops! When I finally got it back, I dog-eared many, many pages with quotes I wanted to share.
Eleanor & Park would have been a sure win for me, no matter what. It combines school (I love books set in schools, for whatever reason) and romance. But the icing on the cake is that Rowell chose to set this in the '80's. Without dating myself too much (yeah, right!), I grew up in the '80's. So reading this didn't feel like a blast from the past, it felt like the way things were for me.
A side note about the time period - at my old library, they started putting historical fiction genre labels on books set in the 1980's. While I technically agree that books set more than 20 years ago are historical fiction, boy, does that make me feel old!
Now back to Eleanor & Park. It begins on the day Eleanor first gets on the bus. It's a bus full of high school students, and like any group of students who have been riding the bus together for any length of time, they have created a stratification. The coolest (and most obnoxious) kids sit in the back, freshmen in the front, and everyone else somewhere in the middle. When Eleanor first stands tentatively in the front of the bus, Park notes that she is "not just new - but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly...She had on a plaid shirt, a man's shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser." (p. 8). Eleanor looks so different from everyone else, and she is harassed from this very first moment. By the time she has reached the seat where Park slumps down, she has been told she can't sit in multiple seats. So Park tells her to sit next to him. And not in a nice way, either. Having grown up with these kids, he knows the comments he is in for even by sitting next to her.
And yet, from that small action, something huge grows. They very slowly develop a friendship based first on the comics Park reads on the bus. Then they begin listening to and sharing music. One of my favorite pieces in the book was when Park gives Eleanor a Smiths tape - the album "How Soon is Now?" Park hears the lyrics as "I am the son... and the heir." When Eleanor listens to it again, she hears "I am the sun...and the air." (p. 54) It is one of those little moments where you see how different, how separate they each are. And it makes their eventual romance that much sweeter.
Eleanor's life is very,very difficult. She has just recently returned to her mom, siblings and stepfather. She was living with another family for a long time after her stepfather kicked her out. He's a drinker, a druggie, and has a temper. Richie is just skeevy, and I can only imagine how exhausted Eleanor's mother is with the effort of keeping them all out of Richie's way. There is no money. The children don't have shampoo, toothpaste, clothes that fit. Eleanor's daily reality is heartbreaking and the courage and grace that she carries is amazing. She purposefully dresses in wild colors so people won't notice she's worn the same jeans three days that week. That way, Eleanor feels like she can control what people say about her.
Eleanor lives in a carefully constructed house of lies and half-truths. Her stepfather is fairly out of control, but no one can know about it. They all live with an excruciating amount of tension. And Park's life is almost the polar opposite. His mother is Korean, and she met Park's father while he was serving in the military there. Eleanor is astonished by Park's family - so content, so put together, so different. "Eleanor imagined Park's dad, Tom Selleck, tucking his Dainty China person into his flak jacket and sneaking her out of Korea." (p.126).
Park sees how Eleanor looks to everyone else: "Eleanor, today, was wearing her sharkskin suit jacket and an old plaid cowboy shirt. She had more in common with his grandpa than with his mom." (p. 122). But he genuinely loves her, too. "As soon as he said it, she broke into a smile. And when Eleanor smiled, something broke inside him. Something always did." (p. 163). He loves her at first in spite of his wanting to fit in with everyone else. Then, as their romance continues, he loves those things that stand out about her best of all.
Rowell has constructed an amazing book. Of course, I love the music, but I also love many other things about this book. The romance is tender, juxtaposed against the suspense of Eleanor's family life. I physically hurt for the whole family - their desolation is piercing. Park's family is fascinating. They are quirky, endearing, but not perfect. Once Park's mother knows more about Eleanor's life, she tells Park "' In big family,' she said, 'everything, everybody spread so thin.'...'Nobody gets enough.' she said. 'Nobody gets what they need. When you always hungry, you get hungry in your head.'" (p. 189). This is such a strong description of Eleanor's family. Eleanor often feels like whatever she might have comes at the expense of her siblings or her mother.
I also love that Eleanor and Park are not your typical romance characters. I just read another teen romance (which shall remain nameless) where both of the main characters were gorgeous, blond and tanned. It is a relief to have characters who aren't perfect. They are originals.
Finally, Rowell's writing is extraordinary. I said at the beginning of the post that I dog-eared lots of quotes. I probably marked thirty quotes in this book - that moment of recognition happened over and over again for me. There were places where truth shines, where romance shows its face, moments of breathtaking cruelty, moments of sheer perfection. Teen romance feels like something to smile at, to marvel at. And this book is no exception. I can hardly wait to read Rainbow Rowell's next book!
Eleanor & Park. Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin's Griffin, 2013.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library