ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
Oh. How I love this book. I don't usually do book reviews because I'm crap about being objective. I have very strong reactions to books - and if I don't, that's an even bigger problem. So, please don't look for a coherent, clear-eyed account of this book's strengths and weaknesses. Instead, let me tell you how this book moved me.
Eleanor is a misfit in a time when being a misfit was in no way cool. She's the wrong size, wears the wrong clothes and is angry. Maybe her biggest sin is that she isn't 'nice.' That just means that she is truthful about how she feels, she doesn't pretend to have softer, gentler feelings than she has. And for a girl in the 80's that is practically unforgiveable. Park doesn't quite fit in their small town either. He's half American, half Korean. He's into alternative music and he's small, effeminate in a high school dominated by jocks. This isn't a John Hughes movie. The underdog doesn't suddenly get their heart's desire after some mild discomfort.
Eleanor's mother is not on her side - staying in an abusive relationship even though she knows it jepaordizes her kids. This is one of the many things I think Rowell does so right. Eleanor's mother doesn't come off as a stereotypical abused woman. She's not stupid and she's not evil. She's complicated, she's trapped even though she's complicit in that trap. And Eleanor is poor. Dirt, can't-afford-toothbrushes-or soap kind of poor. Rowell does a beautiful job of showing the embarrassment and shame and fierce rebellious pride that Eleanor can't hide.
When Eleanor and Park connect it's through art. Comics (The Watchmen, in fact. Oh man how my 16 year old self would have been all over Park like a mongoose on a snake. But I digress.) then through music.
I grew up in this time period, it's not an abstraction for me. The bands that Park listens to, I listened to. So every musical reference in the book - from the description of the heart-stirring opening chords of Joy Divisions Love Will Tear Us Apart, to the Prefab Sprout t-shirt Park wears, all of it tugs at me, brings up my own memories, acts like a time machine directly to my sixteenth year of life when love felt like danger and salvation. As I read, I tried to ask myself, if I wasn't so invested in the time period, the details, would I love this book the same way? Maybe not. But I do know that the writing is exquisite. And I've never seen dual POV used so successfully. Usually, when I see dual POV in YA I wonder what obstacle it's being used to overcome. But with Eleanor & Park, the dual POV was essential. It was a main line right into their heads, their hearts. And the description of the music is what convinces me, finally, that even if the music connecting them was old-timey swing or Norwegian Death Metal, I'd still have fallen madly, deeply in love with Eleanor & Park.
They get together and you know it's impossible. The suspense builds because you know it can't last, you know, logically that (see previous 'this is not a john hughes movie' note) love doesn't conquer all. But you hope like hell. At the end, Rowell doesn't disappoint. She leaves us with hope. And with Eleanor, worthy of her queenly name, a heroine that is strong just because she holds on to who she is.