BWW Review: ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
ELEANOR &PARK has won many awards, as has her second YA novel, FANGIRL, both of which came out within six months of one another. With two books topping so many lists, I knew I had to read Rainbow Rowell's YA novels and see what the fuss was all about! I'd read her adult novel ATTACHMENTS over the summer and didn't love it, so I never got around to her YA novels. But that's absolutely a "me" issue. I struggle with epistolary novels. I also struggled with award-winning novels like Stephen Chbosky's THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, Kimberly McCreight's RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA, and Maria Semple's WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE last year. This really opened my eyes to the fact that I am not a fan of epistolary writing, though I've struggled with it before this year as well. Luckily, neither ELEANOR & PARK nor FANGIRL is epistolary in nature, so I was finally able to enjoy Rainbow Rowell's writing without any distractions.
What makes ELEANOR & PARK (And, in fact, FANGIRL, too, though I'll review that one another time) so extraordinary is, in fact, how ordinary it is. How everyday. Life is mundane. We make our way through each day, and there isn't always something to set it apart from all of our yesterdays and tomorrows. Rowell captures this balance well. Readers follow along as only-Korean-boy-in-town Park and new-girl Eleanor reluctantly become seatmates on the bus. Slowly, slooowly become friends. Become something more. Become everything. It's real. It's honest. Neither one feels good enough for the other, but can't imagine letting go, either. ELEANOR & PARK is a story about relationships, about how we react with one another. It's a story about first love. It's a story about families, about classmates, about life. It's a story of the people we surround ourselves with each day, and it brings back many memories of high school. Even though the novel is set in the 80s, it feels timeless. High school is still like this now. It was like this a decade ago. Flying schoolbuses and ear-implanted iPods notwithstanding, it will be like this a decade from now as well.
First love can be everything. It can be nothing. You will always remember your first love, whether you stay together and get married, or split up in a fiery mess. You will always remember. Eleanor and Park are very grounded. They know this is first love. Eleanor, especially, knows it might not last. She knows more about her own situation, her own homelife, and knows that Park's wish to stay together may not be feasible. But she's also willing to try, to keep him as long as she can. Rowell weaves a very balanced, logical view of teenage love as well as she does careless, breathless moments that are easy to get swept away in.
What I like most about the novel is how human everyone is. Teenagers--and even adults--are so focused on themselves and what they are going through that they can't comprehend someone else's POV. In ELEANOR & PARK, we get both sides. Eleanor may be thinking,
And Eleanor couldn't even think strategy, because all she could think about was Park's hands on her waist and her back and her stomach--which all must feel like nothing he'd ever encountered. Everyone in Park's family was skinny enough to be in a Special K commercial. Even his grandma.
Eleanor could only be in that scene where the actress pinches an inch, then looks at the camera like the world is going to end.
Actually, she'd have to love weight to be in that scene. You could pinch an inch--or two, or three--all over Eleanor's body. You could probably pinch an inch on her forehead.
Holding hands was fine. Her hands weren't a complete embarrassment. And kissing seemed safe because fat lips are okay-and because Park usually closed his eyes.
But there was no safe place on Eleanor's torso. There was no place from her neck to her knees where she had any discernable infrastructure.
As soon as Park touched her waist, she'd sucked in her stomach and pitched forward. Which led to all the collateral damage ... which made her feel like Godzilla. (But even Godzilla wasn't fat. He was just ginormous.)
(pg. 234, US hardcover edition)
While Park is thinking of that exact same situation as:
She was a little too far away, so he put his hand on her back, and pulled her toward him. He tried to do it like it was something he did all the time, as if touching her someplace new wasn't like discovering the Northwest Passage.
Eleanor came closer. She put her hands on the floor between them and leaned into him, which was so encouraging that he put his other hand on her waist. And then it was too much to be almost-but-not-really holding her. Park rocked forward onto his knees and pulled her tighter.
Half a dozen cassette tapes cracked under their weight. Eleanor fell back, and Park fell forward.
(pg. 233, US hardcover edition)
Rowell strips everything down to the basics, reminding readers that this is real. It could happen.
She also has a way of chipping at her characters' hearts and revealing their most ugly thoughts, the kind we all have about ourselves and rarely express out loud, the kind you don't often see reflected on even in books, such as:
Eleanor uncovered her face and looked in the mirror. It wasn't as embarrassing as she thought--because it was like looking at a different person. Someone with cheekbones and giant eyes and really wet lips. Her hair was still curly, curlier than ever, but calmer somehow. Less deranged.
Eleanor hated it, she hated all of it.
"Can I open my eyes?" Park asked.
"Are you crying?"
"No." Of course she was. She was going to ruin her fake face, and Park's mom was going to go back to hating her.
Park opened his eyes and sat in front of Eleanor on the vanity. "Is it so bad?" he asked.
"It's not me."
"Of course it's you."
"I just, I look like I'm in costume. Like I'm trying to be something that I'm not."
Like she was trying to be pretty and popular. It was the trying part that was so disgusting.
"I think your hair looks really nice," Park said.
"It's not my hair."
(pg. 215, US hardcover edition)
Eleanor feels human. So does Park. So, in fact, does Cath in FANGIRL. I think this is one reason Rowell's books have resonated with so many people and topped as many 2013 lists as they have.
Is either my favorite book in the entire world? No, but I'm also not contemporary's #1 supporter. The fact that I liked both books as much as I did and found so much to connect with despite being a diehard fantasy girl showcases the way Rowell is able to tell a story compelling enough to keep anyone reading and coming back for more. Rowell is definitely an author to watch, and it will be different to see how she approaches writing next. So far, every book has been written in a different stylistic pattern, and I can't wait to see what new boundaries she tries out next...or what her characters get themselves into the next time around.
ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell was first published by St. Martin's Press on February 26, 2013.