Eleanor & Park
Orion (Hachette UK)
Read from my TBR shelf
A year after her stepfather kicked her out, Eleanor is finally being allowed to return home and live once again with her mother and her younger brothers and sister. It means being the new girl at school and on the bus, Eleanor takes less than a second to see that she’s all wrong. Her clothes are more like men’s clothes, they don’t match and often hang awkwardly on her frame. She has long, unruly red curly hair and freckles.
On the bus, Eleanor sits next to Park and for a long time, they don’t talk. Park listens to his music and Eleanor sits six inches away from him with her own thoughts. But then she starts glancing at the comic books he sometimes reads. And before he knows it, Park is tilting the books so that Eleanor can read them, lending her copies to read at night and making her mix tapes so that she might hear some of the bands the kids at school talk about.
Slowly, over the course of the year, Eleanor and Park fall in love. They are very different but they find a common ground in comics, music and not fitting in. Park flies under the radar but there’s no denying that he’s not quite the same as the other boys in Omaha Nebraska. His brother is the football player, the one who fits in, the one that his dad knows how to talk to and deal with. Park is much more like his Korean mother, shorter and slighter, darker. And Eleanor knows just how to keep her head down. After all she’s used to it at home. No matter what they throw at her in school, she can take it and pretend it doesn’t happen. But at home is a different story.
Rainbow Rowell has the uncanny knack of being able to reach right in and rip my heart out with pretty much every book she writes. Okay I’ve only read three so far (her fourth book is due out this year) but every single one of those three I already know will be books to re-read and remember. Attachments is funny and brilliant and I ordered this one straight after reading it but then it sat on my shelves for nearly two years. I even read Fangirl before this one. I don’t know why, because I’m ridiculous. I should’ve read this book the day it arrived.
This is teen romance at its best – there’s no instalove here, it’s awkwardness. Park regrets letting her sit down and he really wants to move elsewhere. But slowly, so slowly over time something absolutely beautiful develops between these two characters. Eleanor has to be so careful, she can’t let a single whisper of even being friends with a boy get back to her mother or stepfather and there’s no one really championing them as such. Eleanor is not what Park’s tiny, dainty Korean mother would choose, she’s big and a lot of hot mess really but there’s something so simplistic about her and Park together that works.
There are some incredible moments in this book. Not only does Rowell nail the subtle sort of high school bullying and humiliation well but she tackles some difficult moments between adults and teenagers and pulls them off remarkably. Park’s father is a decorated veteran, probably a man’s man who finds it difficult to relate to his quiet son. He invites Eleanor for dinner often and one day he just tells her that he knows her stepfather and that he’s sure Eleanor has a rough time at home and she just has a standing welcome at their house whenever she needs or wants it. It would be a difficult scene to achieve without ringing false but it worked so well. I found myself getting a little emotional reading it because Eleanor needs someone to understand what her life is like and not try and hassle her but simply let her know that she has some options. Eleanor’s stepdad Richie is a quietly sinister character, the sort that hovers in the background until you can almost, but not quite forget about him. And then he erupts and shows why it’s only ever an almost, not a completely. You have to wonder how Eleanor’s mother can tolerate this and yet again, it’s not uncommon, women finding men who beat them down verbally, physically and completely change their priorities. Park becomes the bright spot in Eleanor’s life, the times together on the bus and what they can snatch occasionally after school, just talking about music and comics.
Eleanor & Park is set in 1986 when I was 4 years old and a lot of the music and fashion references are a little before my time – they’re familiar but I don’t really “get” them the way someone who is a few years older would. However that doesn’t impact at all on the overall feel and tone of the book – what’s most important is the connection that Eleanor and Park establish. The music and the comics are the vessel for it true, but the way their feelings evolved and deepened was the way in which this book truly affected me. Rainbow Rowell really is gifted at bringing two characters together and giving them such a wonderful relationship, warts and all. Her characters are unusual (I have to love that the heroine of this one has crazy red hair and freckles!) and there’s so much feeling involved. She’s an author that can pretty much do no wrong for me!
Book #42 of 2014