Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

>> Thursday, April 14, 2016

TITLE: Eleanor and Park
AUTHOR: Rainbow Rowell

PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's


Eleanor is the new girl in town, and she's never felt more alone. All mismatched clothes, mad red hair and chaotic home life, she couldn't stick out more if she tried.

Then she takes the seat on the bus next to Park. Quiet, careful and - in Eleanor's eyes - impossibly cool, Park's worked out that flying under the radar is the best way to get by.

Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall in love. They fall in love the way you do the first time, when you're 16, and you have nothing and everything to lose.

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, Eleanor & Park is funny, sad, shocking and true - an exquisite nostalgia trip for anyone who has never forgotten their first love.
I read this for my book club, although having loved Rowell's Attachments, I almost certainly would have picked it up at some point anyway.

This is the story of two 16-year-old misfits. Eleanor is resigned to the prospect of being the weird girl at her new school. With her horrible charity shop clothes, her crazy red hair and too-large body, she fully expects no one to slide over to let her sit on the school bus. Awful as that sort of thing is, it pales in comparison to her home life. Eleanor lives with her cowed mother, her siblings, and an abusive, alcoholic step-father. She's just come back to live with them after a year of living on family and acquaintances' sofas, after her step-father kicked her out.

She's shocked when Park silently moves over and wordlessly offers her the seat next to him. Park is not quite as much of a misfit as Eleanor, but he's definitely not mainstream. He's half-Korean in a neighbourhood where mixed-race families really aren't a thing, and he's into stuff like alternative music and comic books and wearing make-up. His parents love him (and each other), but they (and particularly his white father) don't get him at all.

Neither Park nor Eleanor mean to even talk to each other. They have enough trouble already. But they do, and they discover they have things in common. Slowly, they discover they like the same things and each other, and fall in love. But things aren't easy.

Eleanor and Park are fantastic characters. Reading about their lives is like a punch in the guts. Eleanor's life, in particular, was brilliantly done. We're not told everything at the beginning, we just know there is something obviously wrong in that house, and at the beginning we only get hints of the creepiness, like Richie not allowing shower curtains. As the book progresses, we see more and more details. How he's controlling. The way he turns the other kids into his allies. Eleanor has to be always on edge, always walking on eggshells, trying not to be noticed, not to set him off. Even thinking about living that way stresses me out, imagine actually having to go through it. Rowell builds the dread little by little by little, and it's very effective.

Eleanor's life is also a very affecting portrayal of poverty. There's one scene where she goes to her manchild dad's house to babysit and she thinks how he clearly has money, because there are all these luxuries lying around, and when she explains what she means, it's truly heartbreaking. She's talking about things like quilted loo roll.

Park's home-life, in contrast, seems like paradise to her. They're not rich, but there's enough to live well and for little luxuries (like a walkman). When she's there, she's liked and appreciated and treated with respect, even fondness. It's not perfection for Park, though. He knows he's not the son his father would like, a kid into sports and hunting and cars. His dad doesn't know what to do with a son like Park, and though he doesn't do it on purpose, this comes through loud and clear, and Park hurts.

I was completely into these two and their lives, fully absorbed and engaged. What I wasn't absorbed and engaged in, however, was the romance. And since this is a huge part of the story, it made the book as a whole not work that well for me. My problem was that it felt corny and, honestly, a bit cringey. YA romance is almost never my thing, and this one wasn't, either. I actually would have much preferred it if they'd simply been friends.

Also, there is a heavy dose of nostalgia here. The book is set in 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska, and the music and pop culture of the time are huge elements. I feel no nostalgia or fondness for any of that (it's not that I dislike it, it's just not something that's part of my culture), so all that was simply meh for me.

Still, I liked Eleanor and Park enough individually that it mostly compensates for the fact that I didn't care for them together.



Christine,  14 April 2016 at 23:15  

I agree about the romance it seemed forced to me and if I am being honest it's very doubtful a romance would have developed between them. While it's set in 1986 it seemed very contemporary to me. The quirkiness Park comes to admire in Eleanor feels very much like 2014 ideals projected onto 1986. I don't know how to explain it very well but having been their age at almost exactly that year, a lot of it rang false. I can tell you the idea that a boy could walk into a suburban school in the US at that time wearing eyeliner and the other kids would be hunky dory with it is a HUGE anachronism. I had one guy friend who was into punk music at the time and dyed his brown hair black and people thought it was a really big deal. It may have been OK for Duran Duran to wear eyeliner but no guy in my high school (and I live in possibly the most liberal state in the US- we were the first to have free healthcare and gay marriage) would walk into that school in eyeliner in 1986 and expect to leave unscathed. I cannot imagine how he would be treated. It may be hard for younger people to understand now but calling something you didn't like "gay" wouldn't even have been frowned on by most people at the time.
I thought Eleanor and Park were both really interesting characters (Park's Mom was great as well, I appreciated she wasn't perfect and resented Eleanor at first). As you said that scene with Eleanor at her Dad's place just hit home perfectly how poor her family was. The part where she just took the batteries really struck a chord with me because my own parents were forever buying me packs of batteries at that time- something I had totally forgotten.

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