In the YA novel Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell, two misfits bond over comic books and alternative music.
The story opens with Park’s point of view in August 1986. Park survives the treacherous landscape of high school without too much difficulty, mostly because he dated the popular “Tina” in sixth grade and his dad is “from the neighborhood.” That gives him enough “social currency” that the jocks in the back of the bus ignore him.
Until Eleanor gets on the bus.
Here’s what Park thinks of Eleanor when he first sees her:
Not just new- but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like… like she wanted people to look at her… half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls that his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.
But soon Park will learn how strong Eleanor is. When nobody else on the bus gives Eleanor a seat, Park scoots over. And then…
Park turned toward the Plexiglas window and waited for a world of suck to hit the fan.
What I liked about Eleanor and Park
- Rowell tells the story via the alternating and distinct viewpoints of Eleanor and Park. Eleanor’s jaded sarcasm contrasts nicely with Park’s subdued awkwardness. I liked seeing how their thoughts differ from what they actually say. The dynamic works well.
- Eleanor and Park are thoughtful, compelling characters. Park patiently negotiates Eleanor’s prickly barriers until he reaches her vibrant core.
- Eleanor doesn’t get adequate food, clothing, or, most importantly, love, from her home. Her stepfather drinks too much, and his mood swings poison the atmosphere in the tiny house. Rowell’s description of the family dysfunction felt real and chilling.
- E & P captures the intensity and awkwardness of many “firsts”- first touch, first hand holding, first kiss. I was in the skin of each character, stressing along with them.
- Rowell says a lot in few words. She has mastered the art of “show, don’t tell.”
A few caveats
Eleanor and Park, like first love, is intense, but sometimes the book was too melodramatic, even for YA fiction. For example, the first hand holding episode goes on for three pages.
It’s strictly a love story. The characters are original and interesting, and Eleanor courageously deals with a horrid home life, but there aren’t many BIG IDEAS. Except that first love can break your heart. And that being different is OK.
If you enjoy contemporary YA with quirky characters and sarcastic humor, you’ll like Eleanor and Park. Another bonus: all the pop culture references from the 1980’s, my teenage years. I’m hoping that modern YA readers appreciate the significance of Magnum P.I. and The Smiths.
I actually listened to this book instead of reading it, and the audio version is awesome. Two readers capture the unique voices of Eleanor and Park well.
Have you read Eleanor and Park or other books by Rainbow Rowell? What did you think? Can you recommend another book about first love?
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