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Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Friday, March 15, 2013
Synopsis: Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love—and just how hard it pulled you under.

Review: Eleanor & Park is one of the best YA novels of the year. Now, it’s still early, only the middle of March, and still a lot more YA novels to read, hoping for more special treasure to unearth, titles to possibly add to a hopefully huge best-of-the-year list. But as it stands now, Eleanor & Park also may well be the best YA novel of the year.

Rainbow Rowell’s heartfelt and heartbreaking work of alternating perspectives in different chapters and sometimes the same chapter makes me feel better after Leo Borlock’s eternal stupidity in letting go of Stargirl in Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli? Leo thinks he had problems in his life? Peer pressure? That’s it? How about what Eleanor and Park each have to go through separately and together?
Eleanor lives in a small house with her mother Sabrina, her emotionally abusive stepfather Richie, and her four siblings, Ben, Maisie, Mouse, and two-year-old Little Richie. They all sleep in the same room, with Eleanor taking the top bunk of a bunkbed, and the bathroom being just off the kitchen, separated by a sheet “between the refrigerator and the toilet.” Besides high school, she spends most of her time trying to stay out of Richie’s way so that he doesn’t notice her, so that he doesn’t scream at her and berate her and do everything terrible that this drunken nobody does. Not to mention that he kicked her out a year ago and she lived with their neighbors, the Hickmans, who gradually tired of having to take care of her, so she did everything there that she did in her own household, of making herself as invisible as possible, of not demanding more than she absolutely needed, so that she wasn’t seen as a problem. Plus, as if this wasn’t enough to deal with, Eleanor is also bullied in gym class, and finds sick, twisted messages on the paper bags that serve as the covers for her textbooks.

Park has it easier, though he’s not without conflict either. His father, a military veteran who served in Korea, met his mother there, and brought her with him back to the United States, won’t let him get his driver’s license until he learns to drive a stick shift. His father is also obsessed with martial arts, so every Wednesday, he and his brother Josh take Taekwondo. Park’s mother runs a hair salon out of their garage and there’s been many a time that Park has helped out there.

She and Park meet silently on the bus, her first day at this high school, when no one will scoot over to give her a seat. “The girl just looked like exactly the sort of person this would happen to,” Rowell-as-Park writes. “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.”
Park doesn’t want to cause any social trouble, but Eleanor has to sit down because the bus driver’s ticked at her still standing. So he scoots over and tells her to sit down and says nothing more. Eventually, as the days wear on, and Eleanor notices Park reading comic books, they bond, still silently, at first, over those comic books. Park notices her reading his comics as he reads them, so when he pulls out “Watchmen,” he holds it open for both of them, and though it takes longer to read it because she’s also reading it, he doesn’t mind. Rowell doesn’t rush the get-to-know-you stage between them. It’s thoughtful and sweet and Rowell certainly doesn’t lack for great storytelling skills. Park lets Eleanor borrow “Watchmen” and the next morning, when she gets on the bus she finds a stack of comic books next to him, that he brought with him for her to read. This leads to him introducing her to punk rock, and since this is 1986, cassette tapes and mix tapes abound, along with references to Swatches and TV shows like Mike Hammer and The Young Ones on MTV. Rowell indirectly shows young writers who might read this what she already knows: If you love the music and TV shows and pop culture of a certain decade, put it into your work. Explore it for yourself. Don’t go for what was necessarily popular, but what fascinates you, what makes you light up. Rowell demonstrates that on every page. Plus, Rowell is good at droll humor. For example, while deciding whether to take the bus home too after her first day, Eleanor notices that the bus number is 666. And when Park gets on the bus, sealing her decision, she thinks, “Oh, fine. The children of hell shan’t go hungry on my watch,” about the bitchy Tina and the others also on the bus.

A kind of love does develop, and it’s awkward, and confusing, and frustrating, and joyful and despairing, and so on, just like first love has always been since the beginning of time. She spends time at his house, where his mother doesn’t like her at first, but soon understands why and tells Park about it. He never goes to her house for obvious reasons, and there’s more music and more comics and growing love and a lot of worry for, and about, these two. Eleanor worries that if she tells Park all about her crappy life, he’ll look at her differently, and Park sees that despite really liking Eleanor, he’s still shallow in some ways.

It’s that ending, though, with an incredibly selfless act, that feels like the world is crashing down, though Rowell smartly keeps to the same understated, quietly descriptive prose that makes you wonder about Rowell herself. In this novel, you feel like you’re right there with Eleanor and Park and inside Park’s house and inside Park’s mother’s small hair salon, as well as the sad situation that is Eleanor’s house. It makes me wonder if Rowell sometimes stops dead at the supermarket, or Walmart, or wherever she shops, when she has an idea or feels an idea expanding, or when she’s stuck on a section of a new novel she’s writing and suddenly a revelation comes while walking through the frozen food aisle. Does she stand there stone-still and let it flow through her, seemingly staring at nothing, but actually being blinded and dazzled by everything? I get the feeling that Rowell doesn’t only live. She floats. She zooms. She giggles with happy abandon. Most of all, she seems to feel life so deeply. What better author for teenagers going through the exact same thing as Eleanor and Park?

To me, reading is the same as breathing. And Eleanor & Park keeps me alive, keeps me going, reminds me, like my favorite books, that every book is potentially great, and that those that are duds only serve to make the great ones even brighter. Eleanor & Park is one of the great ones and it will keep on shining long after you’ve read it.

Reviewed by: Rory

Rating: 5/5 DIAMONDS
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