Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park

Written by: Rainbow Rowell

Published in: 2013

Synopsis: 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.


“Don't bite his face, Eleanor told herself. It's disturbing and needy and never happens in situation comedies or movies that end with big kisses.”

Ok, it's been two weeks since I read Eleanor and Park and I think maybe I've given myself enough distance to write an actual review. If I'd tried to do this a week ago I'm pretty sure this post would have just been a series of SQUEEE gifs and quotes from the book. I can't guarantee that I'm not going to devolve into that even now, but I think I might be able to get a few lucid thoughts out before I melt into a puddle of book happiness.

This book is every bit as good as you all told me it was. The characters are warm and imperfect, the writing is sharp and the music references made me want to disappear into my room for a day with only my CDs as company. It's a delightful and gorgeous book unlike almost any YA I've ever read, but it's also really, really sad!  By the time everyone started posting their E&P reviews I had read Attachments and knew that I loved Rowell enough to not want any spoilers, small as they may be. So I'm pretty sure I skimmed most of the E&P reviews I came across, either that or none of you expressed just how stab-in-the-heart sad this book is, because I was not expecting it at all.

So I should probably rewind a little for those of you who haven't read the book yet. E&P is all about Eleanor and Park, two high school students who get stuck next to each other on the school bus and slowly begin to like each other. Eleanor is new to the school, a chubby red head who dresses like a washing basket exploded on her. Park is a thin Korean-American who listens to awesome music and reads excellent comics, and is tolerated by the "cool" kids in spite of all of this but not entirely accepted either. Park doesn't like that Eleanor sat next to him because, as we all remember, school buses are political. But as he sits there reading his comics he notices that she's reading them too, and ever so slowly he starts to lend her comics and then music and before you know it they're holding hands and in love.

Which leads to the sad stuff. Eleanor's life is depressing as hell. She's just moved home after having spent a year living with friends of her mother after her step-dad kicked her out of the house. They're dirt poor, living in a tiny house where she has to share a room with her four siblings and the bathroom doesn't have a door. She has to tip-toe around her step-dad, who is a real piece of shit who emotionally and physically abuses Eleanor's mother. Her real dad is remarried and disinterested, she has no other family nearby, and nowhere to turn. She dresses the way she does because they don't have the money to buy her a new pair of jeans, and she doesn't want everyone to see the holes. And then Park arrives, and he's this shining beacon to her representing all the amazing things that exist in the world that are just outside her and her families grasp. His parents are still together and love each other, he lives in a nice home with his grandparents next door and he has a walkman and comics and batteries! And that just makes it so much sadder, because her life seems even more turbulent compared to his idyllic existence and it's the first big hurdle the two have to cover as a couple. There is the most beautiful scene between Park and his mother about Eleanor and life in a large, poor family, and it is the most perfect encapsulation of parental love and it made my heart explode with emotion.

But lest this talk of sadness send you running for the hills, fear not! It is sad, but it's not about the sadness. It's not even about young love, well it is, but not entirely. What it's really about is navigating that turbulent period between 14-20 where you're trying to find out who the hell you are. I think once you hit 23 you start to look back at your mid-teens nostalgically, remembering how easy school was, how enjoyable it was not having bills or a job and getting to spend all of your free time at the beach. Any issues you went through, the bullies or the unrequited love, they just seem trivial and silly when compared to the things you deal with now. But the thing is, no issue is going to be trivial as a teen because you're not really a person yet, you're the sum of your parts. You're still defined by your parents actions (hello Carrie, you know what I'm talking about) and position in life, and that makes finding your own identity really freaking hard. You can try out different styles and sub-cultures - maybe you try out elizabethan blouses, maybe you frolic in fields or you rage against the machine and curse everyone around you - but everything is so unstable and chaotic and it can seem like everything and everyone is working against you. Add in hormones and teenage love, where any love is the love... It's like trying to reach a broken light bulb by balancing books and boxes on a dodgy old chair - it's always just a second from crumbling and taking you down with it.

Park might seem to have the perfect life with the perfect family, and it's true that he doesn't have to deal with the same god-awful shit that threatens Eleanor's entire existence but he never feels like he truly belongs with the kids at school or his family. And so we get to see two very different teenagers stumble around in the dark trying to find the pieces to their own personal puzzle discovering that, oh hey, maybe we're pieces for each other's puzzle too. And that's where it gets sweet and simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. Because how many teenage loves last? I remember dating a guy in year 11 and thinking "I wish I'd met him in my mid-20s because there's no way this can last". Now that I'm in my mid-20s I laugh at how unsuitable that guy would be for me now, but the fact remains, there's something so melancholic about teen love. But it's also entirely engulfing and it's a credit to Rowell that she can completely capture this obsessive side of teenage love and instead of making me roll my eyes, makes me remember my own silly, obsessive teen loves.
“You think I'm cute?" He said thickly, pulling on her hand.
She was glad he couldn't see her face. "I think you're..."
Beautiful. Breathtaking. Like the person in a Greek myth who makes one of the gods stop caring about being a god.” 
See, adorable! And not a single eyeroll from this cynic!
You can be Han Solo," he said, kissing her throat. "And I'll be Boba Fett. I'll cross the sky for you.”
Adorable AND pop-culture announcements of love?
“The first time he'd held her hand, it felt so good that it crowded out all the bad things. It felt better than anything had ever hurt.”
Wait, no, that's too much, STAAP IT RAINBOW, you're killing me!

 I think Tika really nailed it in her review where she said the book made her heart "sore and soar" because yes, that's exactly what it does.  It's a book that gives you a gorgeous look at young love, the trials of young-adulthood, family life and navigating music and style and self identity. But it's also so much more than just that. I can't imagine how you could read this book and not look back at your own teenage years, your loves and fights and parental dramas. It reconnected 25 year old Kayleigh with 15 year old Kayleigh and it gave me a better appreciation for my journey through those emotional and ridiculous years. I'm always weary to say something is perfect, but damn, if this book isn't perfect it's really freakin' close. It's a definite must-read for everyone.


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