Do I need to explain to you what Eleanor & Park is about? Do you even need to be convinced that you should read it? And can I even possibly start to write the review that this book deserves? It’s unlikely, but I’m going to try anyway.
I first read Fangirl, then Attachments, then it was time to pick up the ‘big one’. Eleanor & Park is the novel that propelled Rainbow Rowell into ‘YA authors that everyone should read’ status – and it feels like everyone did read it. As said in A Chat With Rainbow Rowell About Love and Censorship: ‘I loved it, my mother loved it, my pregnant coworker loved it, my friend who “never reads YA” loved it. You probably loved it, too.’. And with popular books comes high expectations…
Like Attachments, Rainbow Rowell once again transports us to a slightly different time, this time 1986 on a high school bus in Omaha, but Eleanor & Park could have also been set in the 1990s or 2000s. Eleanor first meets Park when she is forced to sit next to him – and he begrudgingly lets her – on the way to school. They barely look at, let alone speak, to each other, so their romance begins in silence as Park loans Eleanor the comic books that he brings with him every day, then the mix tapes, and then comes the eventual conversation. It’s an extraordinary romance that starts in an ordinary way. Eleanor and Park feel like they’re the misfits of the school; the outsiders; and the outcasts, who will never truly be popular. Eleanor is named ‘Big Red’ because of her weight and bright red hair, which is only exacerbated because of her awkwardness and quirky way of dressing. Park is technically a member of the popular group, but as he’s the only Asian kid in school, has a taste for comics and great music, and his Dad is constantly badgering him for not being masculine enough, he’s different. Or at least, he feels different. Eleanor and Park, one of the most loved couples of 2013, show us that you can never possibly know who your first love will be.
Eleanor & Park also has one of the most memorable, and most shared, YA covers (US edition) of 2013. It’s cute, and I’d seen a lot of people talk about how cute the story was, and how cute the romance was, and it was generally all rainbows (no pun intended!) and unicorns. I started the book expecting it to be cute, understandably, so I wasn’t prepared for how utterly moving and incredibly sad it was. Yet it seems obvious to me now because Eleanor & Park is authentic and realistic, right down to the teenage awkwardness and self-awareness that Rainbow Rowell is known for. I feel that most people love it because of the authentic way both teenagers interact. (Because even when Eleanor and Park are together, it’s so awkward that you feel like they’re not even enjoying being together). It’s not easy for them; it’s hesitant and uncomfortable and reluctant. We notice that Eleanor doesn’t enjoy visiting Park’s home, meeting his mother (who, by the way, reminds me of Mrs Kim from Gilmore Girls). But they push on anyway, trying not to let anxiety get in the way of the best thing that’s ever happened to them; trying to make it become easier. Yet Eleanor has one of the most awful, horrific lives at home that I’ve come across. She’s stuck with an abusive stepfather, who has already kicked her out of the house once before, living in a tiny room with the rest of her siblings. It’s difficult to imagine it being a reality, but it is for some people – the abuse, the lack of clean clothing, privacy and food. Eleanor and Park’s romance is a shining beacon in contrast to the dysfunctional, damaging relationship that her mother and stepfather have and we love them because they know it’s still not going to be easy.
Eleanor & Park also shows us how easy it is to judge other people. We form an opinion and then take that opinion as fact. Park thinks that Eleanor wears unusual clothing because she wants to stand out, but in reality, it’s because she cannot afford to buy new clothes and has to patch up her old ones. We assume, but we don’t even ask. Eleanor seems melancholy most of the time, but Park notices how she lights up when talking about something she’s passionate about, like the comic books and music he lends her, not unlike the enthusiasm we see in Fangirl. I loved that Eleanor & Park shows how much an interest or hobby, no matter how silly or trivial it seems to other people, can make a real difference to someone’s life. So Eleanor & Park is about the romance, yes, but it’s also about pushing through life, just trying to make it better in any way you can.
Eleanor & Park is a novel that you’ll read and understand why people love it so much, even if it’s not your cup of tea. Rainbow Rowell’s Landline is published this year, but I can imagine that her next YA novel, whenever that may be, will be one of the most – if not the most – highly anticipated novels of the year. Make 2014 the year you read a Rainbow Rowell, if you’ve not already.
This isn’t one of the best reviews I’ve written as it’s so difficult to put into words how this book makes you feel, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway! :)
Published: 26th February 2013 (US) 28th February 2013 (UK)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin (US) Orion (UK)