Book Review: "Eleanor & Park" by Rainbow Rowell

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK 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.

First, turn on some 80’s music (preferably The Smiths). That’s the perfect way to get settled in for this review.

Eleanor and Park tells the story of two misfit Nebraska teens in the 80’s – how they meet, how they fall in love, how it ends.

Eleanor is a “chubby” girl, destitute and mostly friendless. She doesn’t dress like the other girls, and she doesn’t think or feel like them either. Her home situation is bleak – her beautiful mother is in an abusive relationship with the repulsive and frightening Richie.

Park is the only half-Asian boy in his neighborhood, who loves comic books, mixtapes, and awesomely enough, eyeliner. While his home life is less-than-perfect, it’s still better than Eleanor’s.

These two kids are outsiders, and that’s what brings them together. That’s something most teens can identify with, no matter what social stratosphere they belong to. They fall in love, slowly but totally. Park sometimes feels ashamed of how he feels for Eleanor, and Eleanor feels like she can’t be loved.

This is a story about obstacles – obstacles to falling in love in the first place, and obstacles to staying together. There are things that are broken, but despite everything, you root for these kids. You want their ridiculously adorable love to succeed, and you want them to be together “4ever.”

Rowell writes with a knowledge of all that is ugly about life and love. She gets that a teenage love affair isn’t all passionate kisses and lovestruck swoons (although sometimes it can be that shallow), it’s also about families and social pressure. It’s about finding someone who makes you feel understood, and never wanting to let go of them.

The writing style can be foulmouthed, which has caused some controversy, and the sexual content (which I personally thought was mild compared to some other YA novels) has been called “obscene.” But honestly, I think what teens need is some brutal honesty. Some kids have abusive parents. Some others are bullied for their weight. Some are discriminated against because of their race. That stuff is real, and teens face it every day. By shielding teens from reality, it hinders their ability to critique the world around them, to find comfort in relating to the characters, and survive ugliness.

The ending was bittersweet. That’s all I can really say without spoiling it.

“Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn't supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”
 “Or maybe, he thought now, he just didn't recognize all those other girls. The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn't recognize the formatting. When he touched Eleanor's hand, he recognized her. He knew.”

This the first book that I’ve read since The Fault In Our Stars by John Green that made me feel something. Rowell doesn’t just show you a teenage love story…she makes you feel it. She takes you back to that breathless, doomed first love.  The kind that makes your breath catch in your throat, where holding hands makes you feel like you’re on fire and you never want to be put out. That’s what Eleanor & Park reminded me of with every page.  Eleanor and Park isn’t just some beautiful love story – they’re raw, real, and tragic, like Romeo & Juliet but without the stupidity. This is the best book I’ve read all year, and if I could only recommend one book to you from 2013, this would be it. So what are you waiting for?

Five stars.