A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about all of the wonderful books that won the Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, and Printz Awards. As soon as the lists came out, I rushed to my library to get some the award-winning books to read. I am slightly ashamed to admit that the only book on any of the lists that I read on my own before those shiny stickers were put on their covers was Rainbow Rowell’s gorgeous novel Eleanor & Park. But I am so glad that I did.
Eleanor & Park is such a special book because it takes threadbare premises that readers have read countless times, and turns all of them on their heads.
So yes, the book is about a boy and a girl from two very different worlds. The boy and the girl fall in love. People and circumstances work to tear them apart because they are from two different worlds. But here is what separates and elevates Eleanor & Park.
Eleanor is a sixteen-year-old girl in 1986 who has had a very rough life. She is returning to her home in Omaha for the first time in a year, after her mother’s abusive husband kicks her out. After coming back, most of Eleanor’s time at home is spent trying to avoid crossing her stepfather, looking after her younger siblings, trying to breathe in a place that is claustrophobic and sucks all hope out of her, and trying to make do when she is too poor to buy shampoo or batteries for her Walkman. The kids at school bully her and call her Big Red because, well, she has red hair and is overweight.
Park comes from a good family. His father is a war veteran and his mother is Korean. Park is well-liked at school, but does not feel like he fits in. He’s quiet, likes alternative music, and wears eyeliner. While the kids at school don’t hassle him like they do Eleanor, he feels isolated and alone due to his race and the ways in which his interests diverge from his peers.
When Eleanor sits next to Park on the bus for the first time, he isn’t too happy about it. Her bright red hair and the way she dresses are magnets for malicious attention, and Park doesn’t want anything to do with her. Park is irritated at first when Eleanor starts to read comic books over his shoulder on bus rides. And then he starts lending her comic books. And music. And he finds that finally he has someone to talk to, someone who understands his interests and can talk with him intelligently.
At first Eleanor wants to keep her distance from Park, because she is not used to people being kind to her without there being a catch. Strength in numbers is not a rule that applies to her, as she knows that her stepfather will use people against her. And she is certainly not used to people looking past what she perceives to be her physical ugliness to see the beauty of her mind and heart.
It starts with hand holding. For waiting in anticipation for bus rides to and from school. For the haven they have created together. And as their relationship progresses, Eleanor and Park learn to see beauty in each other where the world sees something strange or ugly. They learn to let their guards down, so show each other emotional parts of themselves that leave them both vulnerable and exhilarated.
An excerpt from the book shows that their relationship is more than kissing and hand holding. Eleanor and Park are also friends and banter with the best of them. Oh, how I love the bantering in this book.
“Bono met his wife in high school,” Park says.
“So did Jerry Lee Lewis,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Shallow, confused, then dead.”
“I love you,” Park says.
“Wherefore art thou,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be.”
What makes Eleanor & Park a successful and lovely story of first love is the little moments. The first time that they hold hands. The first time they are vulnerable with each other. The first time that they kiss. This book is about the small moments that build until they realize suddenly that they are falling in love. And all the while, the reader is falling in love with these characters while they fall in love with each other. If you are looking for a love story that does not involve vampires or ritual suicide, this tender, quiet book is for you.