Park noticed the new girl at about the same time everybody else did. She was standing at the front of the bus, next to the first available seat.
There was a kid sitting there by himself, a freshman. He put his bag down on the seat beside him, then looked the other way. All down the aisle, anybody who was sitting alone moved to the edge of their seats. Park heard Tina snicker; she lived for this stuff.
The new girl took a deep breath and stepped farther down the aisle. Nobody would look at her. Park tried not to, but it was kind of a train wreck/eclipse situation.
The girl looked like exactly the sort of person this would happen to.
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. Or maybe like she didn’t get what a mess she was. She had on a plaid shirt, a man’s shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces handing around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.
That was Park’s first impression of Eleanor. Although he wants nothing to do with her, he’s a decent person and he hisses at her to take the seat beside him when the kids at the back of the bus start openly taunting her. She continues to sit with him every day on the way to school and back, but they remain silent. When Park notices her reading his comics along with him, he slows his reading and then brings a stack of comics that he silently leaves on her seat. From there, a tentative friendship begins, and that friendship quickly turns into romance.
Rainbow Rowell tells the story of Eleanor and Park’s romance through a series of vignettes that alternate between Eleanor and Park. We see the disastrous home life that Eleanor tries to hide from everyone, including Park. We see the pressure Park’s is placed under by his family and his genuine, bewildering affection for Eleanor. The romance between them is sweet, even if the story is not. Eleanor’s life—in which she shares a single bedroom with four siblings and lives in fear of being kicked out again by her stepfather—is too harrowing for this to be a sweet story. Her relationship with Park is the one good thing in her life.
One of the things I liked about this book is the way Rowell puts this romance in its place. Eleanor and Park feel passionate, all-consuming feelings for each other. At 16, they’re both experiencing romantic love for the first time, and the feelings that come with it are huge. But as big as those feelings are, their relationship isn’t the only thing that matters. Eleanor’s family situation is, of course, a source of tremendous tension and pain. But Park’s family matters, too. These are the relationships that made Eleanor and Park who they are, and they are the relationships that will have staying power, for good or for bad, long after the typical high school romance is likely to peter out. The romance is the central story of the book, but it’s not necessarily the central story of the characters’ lives. (How central it could become depends on whether and how long it lasts beyond the year recounted in this book, but the book itself focuses on a single year, and the future remains in doubt for most of the book.)
The novel is set in 1986, which is awfully close to when I turned 16. That made the pop culture references and descriptions of clothes and cars and mix tapes particularly fun, although I have to say that Eleanor and Park’s interests in comics and alternative music were far cooler than my generally ordinary interests in sitcoms and top-40 music. I might have heard of The Smiths, but I didn’t know the first thing about how to find such music—nor did I know I might enjoy it. That’s a big difference between 1986 and today. It’s a lot easier to find quirky stuff to like and people to like it with now. Eleanor called the song lyrics and band names on her notebook a wish list—things she’d heard of and thought she’d like if she got a chance to hear them. Today, the Internet would bring it right to her, if she could find a way to log on. In 1986, she had rely on Park’s mix tapes.
Another thing I liked about this book is the way Rowell handles Eleanor’s weight. Eleanor is fat—and by that I don’t mean not skinny. It’s clear from every description of her body that she’s a big girl, although how big she is Rowell leaves up to the reader to decide. Eleanor’s fat is part of her; it affects how she sees herself and how others see her. But it doesn’t define her, and it doesn’t keep her from being attractive. And most important, there’s no pressure placed on her to change the way she looks in order to become a better, more acceptable person. We do get a sort of makeover scene in which Eleanor is “treated” to a new hairdo and make-up, but Rowell subverts that makeover narrative in a delightful way. (Honestly, I loved that moment.)
This is a charming book. It’s written for a young adult audience (or at least marketed as such), but that shouldn’t put off adult readers. (Honestly, I don’t think adult readers should ever be put off young adult books if they sound appealing. Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, writes as well as any “adult” author.) If it sounds like the kind of story you’d enjoy, you probably will, even if you’re not a teenager anymore.
P.S. Regarding the 1986 setting, there’s a point in the story when someone is watching The A-Team on a Friday night, which took me totally aback because I thought that was a Tuesday-night show. Besides, was it even still on in 1986? It was driving me crazy, so I looked it up, and it turns out the show moved to Fridays at about that time and had lost a lot of its popularity. I’m glad Rowell got it right, but I’m glad too that my hunch wasn’t unreasonable. (Also, it’s perhaps kind of sad that I remember what night The A-Team was on but not the names of people I met last week. I’m sure it has something to do with memory formation at different ages, but I wish I could convince my brain to hold onto useful memories and let go of such trivialities as TV schedules from the 1980s.)