Despite the fact I am a wee bit past the key demographic of the “Young Adult Novel” it is still my favorite genre to read. There is just something about the whole cross roads of figuring out who you are and what your place in the world is that draws me in. Especially because now that I can remember being that age instead of actually being that age I have a new perspective and have a new angle on all the emotions and stories that the characters take us through. It is also highly because at the age of 23 I am still much figuring out both who I am and what my place in this world is…I can still find myself in these characters without having to do much stretching or imagining. Even when the characters are pretty remote from me, like they are in ‘Eleanor & Park’ by Rainbow Rowell.
Eleanor and Park are 16 years old in 1986 Omaha, Nebraska at first just trying to get through day after day of teenage life. Then they share a bus seat, English class, and History class. Next comics and music and eventually what it is like to be young and in love. And that’s just their lives in the public eye, at home they both face their own battles; Eleanor a very broken and divided home and Park trying to live up to his dad’s expectations. It’s a romance that neither starts how you thought it might nor ends that way, which contrary to the typical YA novel is completely realistic.
What I loved most was Rowell’s ability to so perfectly capture the thoughts and dialogue of teenage life, especially one with such a specific time period. There at times, in some YA novels comes a feeling that the language is too specific in attempts to be clean-cut or incredibly over the top in terms of vulgarity or cursing but within this story it all felt real and appropriate. Even better, it is laced with so many pop culture references; from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to U2 to the Nebraska Cornhuskers (a treat for anyone from Nebraska or who attended the University like myself). Having grown up on Gilmore Girls I love a good pop culture infused piece of entertainment so I was practically salivating at each one.
The list of characters is small in size but robust in-depth. The title characters of Eleanor and Park, who share narrating duties, are well-rounded without being insanely specific. We know Eleanor is a big girl with equally big red curls and that Park is Asian-American and has a fondness for black. Eleanor is both brave yet incredibly scared and Park doesn’t care about reputation while caring almost too much all the same. The best part about these two is that, unlike in most couples (fictional or nonfictional), you don’t have a favorite. At least I never did. Never did I feel more pull towards one or the other, I admired each equally and for different reasons. I can’t think of another instance when that was true, even in all my beloved couples I’ve had a preference; Lois over Clark, Harry over Ginny, Ron over Hermione, Peeta over Katniss, Darcy over Lizzie, Colin over all his Katherines. However Eleanor and Park just balance out their scales, to quote Darcy from the movie Something Borrowed. “I make him lighter and he just makes me…heavier somehow…in a good way.” I don’t know who makes who lighter or heavier but that’s because it doesn’t matter because with these two it just makes sense.
And then we have the supporting characters. Eleanor’s mom who you can picture as a beautiful but run ragged woman who seems to subscribe to the “we accept the love we think we deserve” motto by marrying not one but two less than amazing men. Her siblings are young and easily persuaded to choose sides in order to keep a sense of peace, but they never stop loving and depending on Eleanor. Park’s parents are…for lack of a better example yin and yang. They met when his father was stationed in Korea, Park’s mother is “an angel” according to virtually everyone (and yes really she kind of is) who has a salon in the family’s garage. His dad is what might come to mind when the phrase “manly man” is uttered; tough, demanding, and a fan of things like hunting and driving stick shifts. On the surface they make little sense but through every interaction (which we see from Park’s eyes) their feelings for each other are very clear, they are what it’s like to be adult and still in love.
Peers. Peers are always fun…said no one ever. Friends are different, friends are in fact fun…peers are all the other people who happen to be your age and making life annoying or difficult. Which is exactly what Steve, Tina, Mikey, and Cal make the bus and school for Eleanor & Park. They tolerate and enjoy Park because they grew up with him, they might think he is a bit odd but they don’t pester him…Eleanor is new and most definitely odd. They pester, they create names, they mock, and in Tina’s case create evil schemes you wish were only real on dramatic sitcoms for emotional reasons. Eleanor does find friends though, DeNice & Beebi band with her and allow her to have somewhat of a pleasant time at school. But let’s not forget adults at school; Mr. Sessman, their English teacher, reminds me of a college professor I had who was a level of enthusiastic that it should be annoying but it is almost endearing. Their counselor Mrs. Dunne is like a low-key version of Val from MTV’s Awkward; just wants to help her students and be equally liked by them…she just doesn’t over insert herself in their lives like Val.
There is a character I’ve left out but that’s because if he were real I would choose to ignore him too…but don’t let that underestimate his importance, he is pretty vital.
At the heart though is still Rowell’s attempt to tell not necessarily an unconventional but most definitely inconvenient romance (spoiler: she totally succeeds). There are ups and downs, secrets and consequences, lack of communication and over communication, expectations, let downs, and surprising satisfaction. The story pulls you in and makes you curse the fact you have to be responsible and go to work or do duties other than inhale the pages. The emotion and feelings that spring forward for these character’s and their stories is strong, there were multiple times where I was so caught up my heart swelled to levels of cheesy we all love to pretend we hate but secretly crave like sweets. And that ending! It’s well…it is an ending. One that caught me so off guard I literally flipped pages back and forth a few times to make sure I was really seeing the word ACKNOWLEDGMENTS staring me in the face. I almost reenacted Bradley Cooper’s character finishing a Hemingway book in Silver Linings Playbook. It’s been a bit since I’ve felt that strongly and really that alone is enough for me to say, “Go! Read this ASAP!”.
Oye this is getting lengthy…mainly I am saying just read the book. I find it hard to think anyone could actually hate this novel, it’s a classic tale told in a modern way, or as modern as the mid-80’s can get. As proof of its awesome I’ll leave you with some quotes that jumped out at me and that I loved so much I jotted down. They are my inciting bit to seduce you into running out and getting your own copy to enjoy.
- “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.” (My personal favorite of the whole book.)
- “…you look like a protagonist. You look like the person who wins in the end. You’re so pretty, and so good. You have magic eyes…”
- “There was something really exciting about that. He liked being near that, that kind of brave and crazy.”
- “He could spend all day like this…If he had all day, he would. If she weren’t made of so many other miracles.”
- “And he’d expected her to feel like heaven, plus nirvana, plus that scene in Willy Wonka where Charlie starts to fly.”
- “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.”
You totally want to read now don’t you? Luckily you can easily find it at places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or even at the author’s website http://www.rainbowrowell.com where incidentally you can also learn about how super cool Rainbow herself is & her other works. You can thank me later…or John Green since he is the reason I know about this book. Happy reading!
P.S. — I wrote this last night and forgot to talk about how beautiful the hand holding is. The hand holding between Eleanor and Park is a thing of true beauty. Rowell writes it in such an electric way that you can almost feel the touch yourself. I’ve always been a big fan of hand holding as it is underrated but so intimate so I adore how front and center it is for these two. Reminds me of the quote from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, “Other bands, they want to make it about sex or pain, but you know, The Beatles, they had it all figured out, okay? “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The first single. It’s effing brilliant, right?… That’s what everybody wants, Nicky. They don’t want a twenty-four-hour hump sesh, they don’t want to be married to you for a hundred years. They just want to hold your hand.”