My vacation reading had some highs and lows, and this was one of the highs. Rainbow Rowell caught my attention with Attachments, but she’s earned my respect with Eleanor & Park. This book was, in a word, beautiful.
Eleanor & Park is about two teenagers who meet on a school bus. Park is half-Korean, half-Irish, in a Midwestern town, where he’s popular enough to get by but still doesn’t feel like one of the crowd. He loves comic books and music (this book takes place in 1986 so he’s listening to the Cure and the Smiths).
Eleanor has big red curly hair, dresses weird, and is described as overweight. She lives with an abusive stepfather and shares a room with her four young siblings and basically has no possessions, even a toothbrush. She’s just returned home – her stepfather kicked her out of the house so she had to go live with her mother’s friend.
I haven’t described Eleanor’s situation very well, but Rowell’s description of her life is heartbreaking and terrifying. Unfortunately, since Eleanor is also sort of a weird-looking kid, she’s tormented by the popular girls at school. Life at home is miserable and life at school isn’t any better – except for the short time she spends sitting next to Park on the bus each day.
Park doesn’t know what to think about this new girl, but he wishes she hadn’t sat next to him. Then he notices that she’s reading his comic books over his shoulder each day.
Like Attachments, this is a novel about two people who come together in an unusual way, almost without conversation. It’s about finding someone who thinks the way you do, who brightens your day, who likes things that you like. And where Attachments maybe had a few too many plot contrivances, this book is wonderfully simple. It’s almost poetry.
To give you a sense of how gorgeous the writing is (and I don’t use that word lightly):
He was still holding the end of her scarf, rubbing the silk idly between his thumb and fingers. She watched his hand.
If he were to look up at her now, he’d know exactly how stupid she was. She could feel her face go soft and gummy. If Park were to look up at her now, he’d know everything.
He didn’t look up. He wound the scarf around his fingers until her hand was hanging in the space between them.
Then he slid the silk and his fingers into her open palm.
And Eleanor disintegrated.
And that’s just the first hand-hold. These are insecure, inexperienced teenagers, and Rowell never writes like they’re adults.
At one point, the characters in this book discuss whether Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was about two people who loved each other passionately, or two people who were misguided by “love at first sight” which then got them killed. True love, or love based on appearances? You can make the argument that Romeo and Juliet never knew each other enough to have loved. I don’t think there’s an answer to the question, but Rowell does a great job of subtly weaving this issue into the book.
The world of Eleanor and Park is romantic without being sugar-coated. Love is tough, and it’s most likely doomed before it even starts. And yet, maybe two people, even teenagers, can really find love in a difficult world.
I don’t want to say too much about this book, but it was fantastic. You will not want to put this book down once you’ve started. I would recommend this book to my teenage nieces but to adult readers as well. This book was recently awarded the 2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children’s Literature for Fiction.