Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve wanted to read this book ever since my kids’ junior high school library committee had a debate about adding it to our shelves. I live in an urban community with a diverse racial and socio-economic population, so the arguments against the book by a scant few parents were laughable to me. The students my kids go to school with live Eleanor’s and Park’s story in some way or another every day–hell, I was Eleanor AND Park at one time.
“Eleanor & Park” is music; it is art. Rowell tells the story with a fresh rhythm that evokes nostalgia, fear, and optimism. Set in the late ’80s, I “got” all the pop culture references–that’s my generation. I wonder if the book has been classified as YA simply because it stars teens. “Eleanor & Park” is technically historical fiction (I feel ancient), but as I read more, I felt Rowell wrote the book for herself and others of our generation. I am grateful that she did. “Eleanor & Park” is a stellar read.
Everything about this book is familiar, but not. Eleanor could be my mother. Park could be my father. I was both Eleanor and Park at one time or another during my adolescence…so was my husband. Everything about this book tells a story so familiar yet completely different.
The cast of characters are richly developed, and the care taken with each one is evident regardless of how small their role may be.
Eleanor is a troubled teen who miraculously doesn’t let her problems at home completely consume her. She’s new in school. Not only that, everything about her sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s got bright red hair and freckles. She wears clothes that, according to Park, make her look like a gypsy hobo. Add to that, she’s a full-figured girl. Happenstance places her on a bus seat beside Park–his initial greeting is less than warm, but Eleanor knows how to move through the sea of cliques with minor damage. She keeps her head down and speaks only when she has to.
One of my favorite parts is when Eleanor laments that Park chose a different comic to read during their bus ride when she hadn’t finished “eaves-reading” the last one. At the same time, Park realizes that Eleanor has been “eye-hustling” his comics, but instead of cuffing them, he opens the pages wider so she can see. Aww. All the while their internal narration argues that they dislike the weird other. When Park silently hands Eleanor a stack of comics, I melted. They still haven’t said but a few words to one another, yet there is this connection–this unspoken conversation between the two. Park isn’t fully aware of what he’s doing or why, but he can’t get Eleanor out of his mind. Eleanor is just as taken with the “stupid, perfect, Asian kid”.
Park’s life is less than perfect. He lives in the shadow of his little brother, and his father seems to dislike that he is more Asian than Caucasian despite the fact that he adores Mindy (his Korean bride and mother of his children).
Told in third person POV, “Eleanor & Park” uses a deep perspective that draws the reader in to the POV character. Time is spent almost exclusively in Eleanor’s and Park’s mind.
To me, this book tells three stories: Eleanor and Park’s budding friendship and eventual romance, Eleanor’s story of her tormented home and school life, and unveiling Park’s less than picture-perfect existence. Each facet works together like pieces of an orchestra, to create a richly layered song.
The pacing of this book kept my interest from the first line to the last. Although I figured out the true source of Eleanor’s torment rather early on, it was still a surprise at how things played out. That ending… This one ended by allowing the reader to insert their own vision for Eleanor and Park, but don’t forget the preface…
I was lost in this book, and I mean that in the best way. Rowell pulled me in to Eleanor’s and Park’s world right away. It didn’t matter to me that these kids don’t look like me or the kids in my neighborhood–they speak a language most teens (and former teens) can understand. The cover art spotlights the couple’s connection to music, but because music (except for oldies and classical) was never really my thing, I glommed on to their shared love of comics as what drew them together. Although their exchanges and her holding onto double-A batteries like she’s Gollum is deeply touching, the comics built the bridge, though.
They’re geeks and they’re in love. They’re best friends and they’re in love. They’re set apart from the masses and they’re in love. Their banter is hilarious and sweet and nerdy and sad and hopeful.
“Eleanor & Park” isn’t perfect (I can’t find anything to complain about except maybe I’d like more time with Park and didn’t care for stating whose POV we were in), but it is an excellent book. I highly recommend this one. Rainbow Rowell is deserving of all the success this book what wrought her.
I love when I find an author whose words strike something within me that I want to read everything they’ve ever written or will write. I’ll be reading Rainbow Rowell for a long, long time.
The quote “She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.” is great–brilliant even, but I offer this one as my favorite: “You can be Han Solo,” he said, kissing her throat. “And I’ll be Boba Fett. I’ll cross the sky for you.” *Swoon* That kid is smooth!
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