Eleanor and Park
by Rainbow Rowell (Orion, 2013)
As adults—and equally as storytellers—we tend to romanticize (not trying to be funny; deadly serious) teenage love as beautiful, fluffy, innocent, happy. The truth is, it is often messy, complicated, confusing, painful. Eleanor and Park is one such story. It is, at the same time, a terribly sweet and a terribly sad tale. It is the kind of book that has the capacity to turn you inside out, like touching your tongue to that sensitive spot on a tooth, the one that you know hurts and yet you can’t help yourself.
Eleanor and Park, sixteen years old and misfits in their own ways, meet on the school bus when Eleanor moves to town and Park offers her a seat. First silences and then comics and music bind them together, and with excruciating slowness, the two become friends. Park, the half-Korean boy, with his exemplary grades and “normal” family, and Eleanor, with her abusive stepfather and army of younger siblings were never going to be the poster kids for the perfect teenage romance, but when has that ever stopped anyone? As Eleanor and Park fall in love with each other, the tension mounts in the background, not just whether Park’s perfect family will accept Eleanor, but also the tinderbox that’s Eleanor’s family situation.
Despite her almost debilitating shyness and lack of self-esteem, Eleanor stands out. To begin with, it’s how she looks: her wild, red her; her size, for which she encounters bullying at school, and also her chaotic dress sense, which is partly because she doesn’t have too many clothes. Add to that her tumultous, disrupted home life, a home where she doesn’t even own a toothbrush, where the bathroom doesn’t have a door, where her stepfather’s violent temper is lurking just underneath the surface, where her cowed and abused mother desperately tries to hold everything together, and where her younger siblings are growing up in constant fear. Park, with his “Asian” looks—and presumably the racism he faces (this is the 1980s midwestern USA, three decades after the Korean War, after all) as a result?—has his own fitting-in problems. And together, they certainly stand out. The trouble is, with Eleanor’s disruptive stepfather on the lookout for trouble, this could mean serious repercussions.
Rainbow Rowell weaves a sweet yet hearbreaking story of love, abuse, bullying and escape. To talk more about the story would be revealing spoilers. Though set in 1986, the book was published in 2013. Having grown up in the 1980s, there were markers that resonated with me, but overall, this is a timeless story. If there is a fault in the storytelling, then it is that it appears to sidestep the possible (likely?) racism that Park encounters.
Eleanor and Park has an unusual and unpredictable ending, one that might not endear itself to all readers. It alternately plumbs bleak depths and rises to dizzying highs, but in the end it is an uplifting read. There are books that have the ability to turn you inside out. This is one of them. You won’t come back from it without having felt something deep and raw.