Friday, July 26, 2013

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Why I read it:  I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.  

What it's about: (from author's website)  “Bono met his wife in high school,” Park says.
“So did Jerry Lee Lewis,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be,” she says, “we’re 16.”
“What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Shallow, confused, then dead.”
“I love you,” Park says.
“Wherefore art thou,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be.”
Set over the course of one school year in 1986, Eleanor & 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.

What worked for me (and what didn't): I didn't know a lot about this book going in.  I knew it was YA, I wasn't entirely sure how much romance would be there and whether it would have a traditional HEA (it did not, but romance readers, don't be scared - it doesn't end badly and Eleanor and Park are only 16/17 in the story).  When I started reading, as much as I was engaged when I was reading, I found myself sometimes reluctant to pick it up again.  Not because it wasn't good.  That's not the case at all.  The writing is lovely and the characters are drawn so well.  No, it was because there was an aspect to this book which was painful to read.  Eleanor's story in particular is sad.  I was worried for a lot of the book that things would not end well for her.  I had a deep sense of foreboding throughout the story which made me increasingly reluctant to keep going.  Perversely, the further I got into the story, the faster I read and the last third of the book took one day whereas the first two thirds took a week.

Eleanor moves to a small house in suburban Omaha, with her mother, her mother's husband (Ritchie) and her four brothers and sisters.  The children all share one small room.  They have almost nothing and live very meanly.  Eleanor's mother is a battered wife - Ritchie is emotionally and physically abusive.  Ritchie dislikes Eleanor in particular - she had been sent away for a year and has only just been allowed back.  She has to go to a new school and her clothing choices are extremely limited - they are all Goodwill, poorly fitting and have various damage such has holes or broken zippers which Eleanor disguises using carefully placed ribbons, brooches, pins and other paraphernalia.  She looks weird.  She's overweight and has bright red curly hair.  All of these things mean that kids at her new school are disposed to dislike and bully her.

Park is American, born or a Korean mother and an US Veteran father.  Park's parents' love story is fairly epic and they are deeply in love - disgusting Park regularly with tongue kisses and PDA's.  Park is mostly safe from the bullies because his family has lived in the neighbourhood for generations (his grandparents live next door) and because his father is a former serviceman.  Still, he likes to keep a low profile.

Eleanor is not low profile. Her eclective style, her red hair and her size make her stand out.  When she sits next to Park on the school bus (there's little choice for either about this), he is at first very unhappy about the situation.  But, over time, he begins to share his comics and music with Eleanor and very gradually, they begin to talk, to become friends and, to fall in love, in the way of 16 year olds.  That is not to dismiss their feelings at all.  But there is an aspect of "you and me against the world" and all consuming-ness to it that seems to be more common in young love.  The feelings are heightened by the teenage angst in their lives and, very quickly that Eleanor and Park come to rely on each other very heavily.
He put his pen in his pocket, then took her hand and held it to his chest for a minute.
It was the nicest thing she could imagine. It made her want to have his babies and give him both of her kidneys.
Park's parents are heroic in this story, in ordinary but generous ways - even though they are not perfect people.  Park's mother initially does not like Eleanor at all.  Park's dad has difficulty understanding his oldest son, who is fairly slight, not terribly tall and into punk music and comics and guyliner, not cars and hunting.  But they are very kind to Eleanor, after a little while, opening their home to her for regular dinners (which means she actually gets some useful nutrition occasionally because she really doesn't at home - Ritchie gets the good food and the children get, basically, gruel). And in the end, Park's parents come through in an even more special ways for the pair.

There is menace and risk for Eleanor at home.  There is love and safety with Park and these aspects are juxtapositioned beautifully in the story.
There’s only one of him, she thought, and he’s right here.
He knows I’ll like a song before I’ve heard it. He laughs before I even get to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes me want to let him open doors for me.
There’s only one of him.
Some of the writing is heartbreakingly beautiful and I wanted to give Eleanor a safe place to belong so hard when I was reading.  I loved Park too.  His acceptance of Eleanor - loving her for who she is and wanting to stand for her when no-one else would, was wonderful, but there was more to him than that.  There was part of the story where he started to find his own style, in conflict with his dad's wishes and how they navigated this, as well as the politics of his family.

The story is told in alternating deep third person POV, the reader is privy to both Eleanor's and Park's thoughts - sometimes it is a few sentences, sometimes much longer, with each section titled by the name of the POV character so it is always clear whose head we are in.  I found it very intimate and revealing.
Her hair was down and wild, wine red even in this light, and her mouth was slightly open. Strawberry girl. He tried again to remember what he’d thought the fi rst time he saw her. He tried to remember how this had happened— how she went from someone he’d never met to the only one who mattered.
What else? In many ways this is a non-traditional love story.  The ending came abruptly for me and left me with many questions (which would be too spoilerish to detail here) but I was happy (for the most part) with where Eleanor and Park ended up and I found the ending hopeful and very open.

When I think back to the book now, I think it was heart wrenching and I'm not sure I'll read it again because there were parts that were so painful to read even though things were better at the end than the beginning.  The characters felt so real to me, I reacted to them as if the story were non-fiction.  It is a powerful and moving story and at heart, very deeply romantic.  I found it very difficult to grade because my feelings about the book are mixed - and they are more "emotional impressions" than coherent thoughts, whatever I may have said above.  But it was beautifully done and I'm very glad I read it so I'm going with a B+.

Grade: B+


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