Yesterday I finished reading the second book of my summer break, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I had picked it up when I was spending some gift cards in Barnes & Noble last summer because I had seen/heard rave reviews about it in the YA fiction community. I wasn’t sure if it would live up to the hype, but after reading it for the first time, I’d venture to say that it did.
Eleanor & Park is a story set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986. The narrative switches between the title characters’ perspectives (indicated by their name) and follows their relationship from meeting on the school bus to falling in love. I was wary of the whole “star-crossed lovers” thing at first, but instead of relying on cliché, Rowell uses the trope to create a very real story, which is what I think is its greatest merit.
Some spoilers to follow FYI!
First of all, these aren’t two perfectly beautiful, normal sixteen-year-olds; it’s not one of those stories in which the super-hot, athletic guy finally falls for the somewhat-awkward-yet-still-kind-of-beautiful-without-trying kind of girl. (I think there’s probably a thousand too many of those.) Eleanor is an overweight, messy-looking, misfit type of girl. She’s embarrassed in her gym suit because it’s too tight. Her hair is red and super curly, but not in a glamorous way. And she’s poor. Like, really poor. Like doesn’t even have a landline poor. Her stepdad is a raging alcoholic who treats everyone in her house like his property (which can be disposed of) and has kicked Eleanor out of the house before; her mom is a defenseless and compliant victim of abuse; and her siblings are all just trying to figure out how this violent and irresponsible stepdad fits into their world. Eleanor does not have it easy.
Park has it much easier than Eleanor, but he’s still not some charming, magazine-cover, popular boy. He’s half-Korean, and his mom is an immigrant who is still pretty traditional in her own ways. His dad is a veteran and hard on Park for not being a “manly” guy. His little brother is, well, a little brother. And Park is just a kid subconsciously trying to find himself in punk music and comic books and the occasional romantic relationship. Park’s struggles are different from Eleanor’s, but real all the same.
And the way their relationship progresses is just as real. At first, Park is just (reluctantly) doing Eleanor (the new girl) a favor by letting her sit with him on the bus. They don’t speak for at least a month. But they both start to break down their barriers slowly but surely as Eleanor starts to read Park’s comic books surreptitiously as he reads them on the bus, and he starts to let her, eventually bringing her comic books to read on her own.
Their relationship begins in friendship, when the two of them form a misfit bond that, though clichéd, still does happen in real life. Their relationship progresses until finally, in a fight with one of Eleanor’s bullies, Park calls her his girlfriend.
Both Eleanor and Park are flawed. Eleanor often shuts people out and tries to handle her problems on her own because she fears being a burden to others and severely lacks self-confidence (as a result of a myriad of things: e.g., her family life, her “otherness”). Park cuts himself off from his friends because he is so infatuated with Eleanor and often says the wrong thing in an attempt to be smooth and romantic. He doesn’t confront problems well, and neither does Eleanor. But hey, all teenagers (and people!) make mistakes.
Not only that, but the beauty of their relationship is in how they find beauty in each other: two people who are not considered traditionally beautiful and who have problems that they’re equally ashamed of. But they see past those things and dust off the beautiful parts of each other that often go unnoticed, by themselves and by their peers. They find amidst all of their baggage, a person they can love.
What I found most refreshing about Eleanor & Park was that it is a teenage story. Not a dreamy, unrealistic, teenage fantasy. A teenage story. Sure, their kind of gushy love-talk I sometimes found cringey (but then again, I think all PDA is cringey), but for all I know with my limited realm of personal experience, that kind of talk in the 1980s between teenage lovers was completely normal. But this story was also about friends (yes, girl/boyfriends, but at the root, friends) helping each other. It is about the real struggles that a lot of teenagers face in their families, among their peers, and in trying to find their identities when everyone around them wants something different from them. It’s not just “I love you! You’re amazing!!” “No, you’re amazing!!” “No, you are!” “No, you!” It’s “I am going to hide my shameful problems from you until it becomes too much to handle.” It’s “I have to lie to my parents about this relationship because they would disapprove.” It’s “You don’t have to fight my battles for me.” It’s real.
And the beauty is also in the ending. There’s no cliché happily-ever-after ending! *A TRUMPET FANFARE SOUNDS! A HALLELUJAH CHORUS RINGS OUT! THE WHOLE UNIVERSE CHEERS!!!* It’s open-ended, so you never really know if Eleanor and Park get back together after Eleanor has to flee to Minnesota because of her family, but there is a hint that they might. Which, is, as I’ve witnessed with friends, a very real place to be, as well.
Eleanor & Park was filled with good-natured dialogue, quirky ’80s references, and emotions from fear to joy, from embarrassment to hope. It had me smiling at the page and gripping the book in suspense. It’s a fictional story about teens falling in love, but it’s really so much more than that.
Have you read Eleanor & Park? What did you think of it? What other good YA books have you read? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!