If you follow many of the popular YA authors on Twitter, you probably heard some buzz about Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Even if you’re not into Twitter, if you’ve walked through the new release section of a bookstore recently, or even browsed the homepage of an online bookseller the simple but beautiful cover art might have captured your attention. Even if neither of these happened, you might have noticed it appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers List this week at spot #6. Of course, if John Green or Maureen Johnson recommend something, my interest immediately peeks. Then when I found out this new young-adult fiction novel had to do with bus rides and mixtapes (it’s set in the 80s when kids still used Walkmen and recorded their parents vinyl onto cassettes, which I loved)? I was sold. Both of those are two of my favorite things from my own childhood memories. Unfortunately for Eleanor, her memories aren’t as great to look back upon. That is until she meets Park.
In this gritty, real, heart-wrenching story told from the alternating perspectives of two Omaha high-schoolers, slowly falling for each other we see the world through the eyes of Eleanor and Park. We also see what they look like to each other.
The thing about this book, is it’s not just the story of two angsty teens in puppy love. The depth of the struggles in Eleanor’s home life are described with such an honest intensity, such a no-nonsense frankness that it seems they would need to either be written from the perspective of someone who experienced such hardships in their own life, or had an extremely close relationship with someone who had. Eleanor’s side of the story isn’t written in an “oh take pity on me” way, even though your heart will probably break while reading it. The harsh realities of life appear in such a straight forward way, that is just the way life is. It’s not great, but it’s not the end of the world because that’s the life the character knows, (even if they yearn for a life outside of those boundaries.) Eleanor’s mom is beautiful but weak, and she’s trapped in a disturbing relationship. Richie, Eleanor’s step-dad is not a very good human being. He neglects the children, he’s controlling, he’s a drunk, and the people of the neighborhood are aware that it must be hell to live under a roof with him. Eleanor basically bides her time from day to day, and tries to avoid Richie at all costs. Even though every once in a while there are “good days” there’s not really any erratic behavior that would be out of the question when Richie’s temper flares. So not only is Eleanor’s home life ridiculously difficult, but she deals with being bullied at school. Eleanor is really smart, and insightful but her appearance and her non-conformist personality set her apart, thus making her not accepted by the majority of her snobby classmates. Let’s face it: kids can be cruel. But you know, there’s always a silver lining – to everything, no matter how horrible. And that’s the case with this story too. I won’t ruin the developments of the bond between Eleanor and Park, but what starts as two kids sharing a seat on their school bus rides blossoms into so much more. The bond grows over shared interests, and opinionated dialogue about music and comics, but it overflows into the rest of life, and is joined by a growing affection. You’ll remember what it’s like to hear the beginning chords of your favorite song for the first time. Or how you felt when the one person you think about all day and night is breathing on the other end of a phone line. Or the electricity that zaps straight through the veins of your arm to your heart when your fingertips collide with someone you really like.
As hard as it is for Eleanor to grow up in her dysfunctional family life, Park is also wounded watching her and not knowing how to help. He knows her situation is bad, he just doesn’t know how bad. He can’t really imagine it completely because he comes from such a different background. But even still, no one likes to watch someone they care about suffer. Even though so many reviews talk about the story of two star-crossed misfit lovers trying to make a high school relationship last – I think that’s diluting the incredible bond here. Sure there’s romance, and there’s the kind of love that it seems is impossible to cultivate with the same fragility and innocence outside of teenage connections – but at the same time, this story is about so much more. Friendship. Communication (the kind in soul-bearing conversation, but also the communication that occurs when no words are exchanged.) I think it’s about survival. I think it’s about not letting the evil dark parts of the world destroy what’s beautiful within. I also think it’s about how valuable the thread of hope is in a miserable situation. That hope, no matter how thin can be life changing.
It seems some readers literally devoured this book, but I on the other hand had to read it in parts, take it slow as my heart literally ached while I read. I felt like it was hard to breathe. I felt like I wanted to reach within the pages and give the characters a hug. (I read the acknowledgements at the end of the novel, and those pulled on my heart-strings, too.) If you take my advice and do check this novel out (because even though it’s not sunshine-personified, happy go lucky, spring break beach read material – I am recommending it) I think you’ll appreciate Rowell’s genuine story telling of love, life, hope, and the kinds of bonds that can really pull us through the darkest times. The cool thing is, no matter how grim some parts are – just like life there were some really sweet moments when the light is let in, when human kindness reigns at the most unexpected times.
Have you read Eleanor and Park? What did you think? Please share with me in the comments!