Book Review: Eleanor & Park

Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

There are some books that are bad choices for staying up past midnight to finish… simply because they are so powerful that they haunt your dreams when you finally go to sleep. Eleanor & Park is one of these. It will take me quite a while to get this lovely, sad story and its unforgettable characters out of my head.

Main characters Eleanor and Park are sixteen, growing up in the Flats, an undesirable Omaha neighborhood where keeping your head down might be your best strategy for getting through high school. It’s worked so far for Park, the only Asian kid around, son of an American army vet who married the girl he fell in love with during his service in Korea. Park listens to punk music, reads comic books, is a mostly obedient son, and tries hard not to attract attention from the loud and obnoxious crowd at the back of the bus.

Everything changes on the day that new girl Eleanor shows up on the school bus. Park — and everyone else — can’t help but notice her:

The new girl took a deep breath and stepped farther down the aisle. Nobody would look at her. Park tried not to, but it was kind of a train wreck/eclipse situation.

The girl just looked like exactly the sort of person this would happen to.

Not just new — but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like… like she wanted people to look at her. Or maybe like she didn’t get what a mess she was. 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. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.

Eleanor takes the only vacant seat available to her, next to Park, who desperately wants to be left alone. If Eleanor pays any mind to Park at all, it’s only as the “stupid Asian kid” that she has to endure twice a day. But gradually, their silent daily bus rides turn into a kind of silent communion. Park notices Eleanor reading his comic books from her seat next to him, and soon starts bringing in a supply for her every day. Before much time passes, the daily rides turn into intense conversations about comics, then music, then life in general. The bond between Eleanor and Park is sudden and all-encompassing, and soon they both realize that their connection is soul-deep and earth-shattering. But is it enough?

Eleanor lives in a tiny, falling-down house with her four younger siblings, her fragile, abused mother, and her mother’s new husband, who is, quite frankly, scary and deeply creepy. The bathroom has no door, so Eleanor has to rush home each day if she has any hope of taking a bath before the awful stepfather gets home. She has only the clothes her mother can scrounge from Goodwill, and washes her hair with whatever soap she can find in the house on any given day. There simply is no one on Eleanor’s side. Her mother is too broken down to even protect herself, let alone Eleanor. On top of her horrible home life, Eleanor — as a new girl who doesn’t fit the mold — is teased and tormented at school. My heart broke again and again for this strong, difficult girl, who is too fearful of the consequences to go to her guidance counselor for salvation from her family life — but thinks that maybe she could at least ask her for a toothbrush.

Eleanor is a prickly character, who pushes Park away every time he gets too close. She lives in fear and shame, and can’t fully accept that someone as wonderful as Park would want to know her. Park is Eleanor’s ray of sunshine, someone who cares, who wants to protect her and to love her, but even Park can’t save her from the nightmarish home she’s forced to return to each day. Park, for his part, and much to his surprise, falls deeply and passionately in love with Eleanor.

The descriptions of Eleanor and Park’s experiences with first love and passion are just beautiful. For example, their first time holding hands on the bus is electric:

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

If someone had been watching, what would they have seen? Park couldn’t imagine what his face had looked like when he touched Eleanor. Like somebody taking the first drink in a Diet Pepsi commercial. Over-the-top bliss.

And from Eleanor’s perspective:

All through first and second and third hours, Eleanor rubbed her palm.

Nothing happened.

How could it be possible that there were that many nerve endings all in one place?

And were they always there, or did they just flip on whenever they felt like it? Because, if they were always there, how did she manage to turn doorknobs without fainting?

The trajectory of Eleanor and Park’s relationship is fast and sharp. Soon, their entire worlds revolve around each other. But an inevitable sense of disaster lurks above and around them constantly. Eleanor’s volatile home life is always on the verge of exploding — and when it finally does, the repercussions are devastating and heartbreaking.

I found myself holding my breath through the final chapters of Eleanor & Park, on edge, scared, and trying to hold back the tears. No spoilers here — not what happens, nor what happens after that. Suffice it to say that it was clear from the start that the odds of a happy ending were slim to none. And yet, there is a beauty and a truth in this love story that make it so worth reading. At the risk of sounding sappy, I’d describe Eleanor and Park as having a purity to their relationship, not in the usual context of sex, but in terms of the absolutely pure emotions they feel toward one another — love, caring, and a selflessness toward one another that is completely believable even while recognizing how rare such a thing is in any relationship, much less a teen relationship.

On a final note, I just loved Rainbow Rowell’s writing. It’s emotional and expressive, but not at all overdone or trite. The conversations between Eleanor and Park are funny, smart, and snappy, and I never felt that I was reading adult dialogue via a teen mouth, as I’ve occasionally experienced in other young adult novels. Throughout the book, we get alternating point-of-view sections, so that we’re often able to see the same event through both Eleanor and Park’s eyes — for example, these two views of their first intense kiss:

Eleanor looked at Park’s face so full of something she couldn’t quite place. His chin hung forward, like his mouth didn’t want to pull away from her, and his eyes were so green, they could turn carbon dioxide into oxygen.

He was touching her all the places she was afraid to be touched…

Eleanor tried one last time to be embarrassed.

He relaxed against the door.

He felt Eleanor’s hand on this throat, on his chest, then took her other hand and pressed it to his face. He made a noise like he was hurt and decided to feel self-conscious about it later.

If he was shy now, he wouldn’t get anything that he wanted.

Two loners, ready but scared, each making conscious decisions to let the other person in and, for once, to stop worrying about how they might look or what others might think. Eleanor and Park are two stand-out characters in the world of YA fiction. I loved everything about Eleanor & Park, and have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who enjoys good fiction, period.

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