It doesn’t feel right to even review Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. This wasn’t just some book. It was an emotional entanglement, an experience that happened to be reading, all eyes absorbing and synapses firing. Eleanor & Park made me angry. It made me uncomfortable. It made me cry. It also made me soar and hope and love. It was a difficult book to read, but I’m so glad I did.
It is 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska. Eleanor is the new girl in school. She’s red-headed and bigger than the other girls. She is not particularly secure about this. She wears boys clothes, over-sized shirts, the opposite of girly. She has garnered the unfortunate nickname of Big Red. Then there’s Park: half-Korean, quiet, listening to his rock music, reading comic books, just trying to fly under the radar. He does martial arts and has the precarious respect of some of the “cool kids.” Both are misfits, in their own way. This is the unlikely story of how they fall in love, of how a brief moment of compassion and embarrassment in the cutthroat jungle of a high school bus can serendipitously lead to something more.
This book was #tooreal. Eleanor’s situation touched home in a way that made me have to put the book down, that made me wince. Her living situation is appalling, textbook domestic abuse. Her stepfather is a monster: a violent drunk basically keeping her family prisoner. It made my blood boil to think of men like that preying on the vulnerable, getting his jollies off of striking fear into women and children. Meanwhile, Eleanor is a beacon of brightness but her situation makes her tone everything down. She has to make herself small. She’s so smart and bursting with sarcasm and life but it all keeps getting beaten down. There is nothing worse than feeling trapped inside your own life, especially when you feel like you deserve something better but know, as a minor, there is nothing you can do to save yourself.
And then comes Park, with the Smiths and Watchmen comics and everything goes from gray to electric but also complicated. This is a book about being an outsider and being with an outsider, about coming to terms with the fact that everyone else’s opinion of you is pretty much bullshit. It is also, of course, about first love. I was so impressed with the way Rowell put into words feelings I could never categorize.
“When he touched Eleanor’s hand, he recognized her. He knew.”
“Did she miss him? She wanted to lose herself in him. To tie his arms around her like a tourniquet. If she showed him how much she needed him, he’d run away.”
“I don’t like you,” he said. “I need you.”
“Her skin was apparently covered with super-powered nerve endings that hadn’t done a damn thing her whole life, but came alive like ice and fire and bee stings as soon as Park touched her.”
She made plain those feelings of desperate caring and feeling and longing, of never having enough time alone, of delighting in learning more about each other, touching and doing, falling more and more down the rabbit hole into whatever it is that makes love true. In the foreground is their relationship, its implausible beginnings, eventual eruption, bumps in the road, and blossoming. In the not so background are Eleanor’s problems with her impoverished family and her abusive stepfather and Park’s worries about living up to his father’s expectations and coming to terms with who he is, all of which flips back and forth between each of their points of view, allowing the reader to get a very round view of the story. This all leads up to a climax that legitimately had me flying through the pages, hands shaking.
This book is good. It is very, very good. I love novels that make you actually feel something. This one got under my skin; it crawled inside me and I loved it. This may not be the feel good book of the year, but it will make you feel everything: love, joy, fear, sadness, rage. This book is alive.
I completely recommend it. Read Eleanor & Park as soon as you can.
Until next time!