Eleanor and Park

EleanorandPark

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.)

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22 Responses to Eleanor and Park

  1. I’m hoping to read this one next week. Yours is the 2nd rave review I’ve read in the past week. Nice job.

    • Teresa says:

      I had read several good reviews the last couple of months from trust-worthy sources, so I had to give it a try. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  2. Alex says:

    I’m going to send the details of this to our Secondary Trainee Teachers. They should definitely know about it.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s a good one for school libraries (although maybe not whole classroom reading). It handles tough issues really delicately and gets a lot of the feelings of being at that age just right.

  3. Lisa says:

    This sounds like an amazing book, and I suspect I might identify a bit with Eleanor (not that my home life was that troubled). I had to laugh at your A-Team research. It’s available on Netflix, and I really do not want to watch it, but I feel this awful nostalgic pull toward late 1970s and 1980s TV.

    • Teresa says:

      I certainly could relate to Eleanor’s feelings about her body–I think a lot of girls would because these days even girls who aren’t fat are made to feel fat. The fact that Park loves her, and quite specifically loves her body, is a nice thing.

      I remember everyone (including me) loving The A-Team back in the day, but I’ve had no temptation to try it again. The shows from that era that would tempt me are Remington Steele and The Greatest American Hero, but perhaps it’s safest to let those fond memories go untainted ;)

  4. I loved this book – as you say, it’s very charming and captures the feeling of falling in love for the first time perfectly.

    • Teresa says:

      I really liked how she handled both the emotional and the physical feelings and the way romantic relationships rub up against all the other relationships. It’s so well done.

  5. I *did* the remember the A-Team as a Friday night show, which is hilarious considering everything in my life that I don’t remember. I was so touched by Eleanor’s list of bands she thought she would like. In the 80s I was really into music but I lived in a tiny town in rural Maine and it was SO HARD to find some of the music I wanted to hear, so I really felt her pain. Everything about this book was just wonderful and I highly recommend the audiobook version.

    • Teresa says:

      Friday tended to be a movie night at my house, which is probably why it fell off my radar when it moved to Friday.
      That list was such a neat detail. Like you, I grew up in a rural area and a lot of stuff was out of reach. For me, it wasn’t bands, but live theatre, especially musical theatre. I would get cast albums out of the library and make tapes of them to listen to over and over, but they mostly had older musicals, nothing new. And it wasn’t the same as seeing the shows.

  6. Can’t wait to read this. I loved Attachments and already have my library hold placed on Rowell’s upcoming Fangirl. And I see on her website that she’s got another book coming in Spring 2014 – busy woman!

  7. Laurie C says:

    I read and reviewed this one, too, and liked it. I was annoyed by the cover art, on which Eleanor is clearly not big at all. I got the impression from the book, though, that she wasn’t actually fat, just taller and more solidly built than the cheerleaders, but at that age she would have felt herself to be enormous and would have been considered fat by the other kids. (At one point, I think, Park’s father is puzzled by the nickname Big Red, because he doesn’t think she’s big.) I could be wrong on this, though!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, you’re right about the cover art. I hadn’t noticed it because it’s just the backs of their heads, but she’s the same width as Park. That seems wrong.

      In the post that I linked to, Rainbow Rowell said she left Eleanor’s precise size ambiguous but that she is indeed fat. Just how fat is unclear–probably not as fat as she sees herself but not a teenage girl who feels fat because she’s a size 6 rather than a size 2. Park’s descriptions of her body emphasize her roundness, so the text supports that. I missed the bit about Park’s father but Rowell mentions it in her post. My guess is that an adult man would have a different view on what would make a woman look “big” than a teenage boy would, so there’s room for multiple ideas regarding what he pictured.

      I do like that she left it ambiguous. If she’d mentioned a specific size, she’d risk alienating readers who were even larger and longed to get down to, say, a size 12. (That was my size when I was 16, and I pictured Eleanor as slightly larger than that, based on the descriptions.)

      • Laurie C says:

        I didn’t click through to the post you linked to, but I will! I like that she left it ambiguous, also. I definitely wasn’t thinking size 6, but more of a size 12. If she was what an adult man would see as “fat”, then that makes the high school romance between her and Park too unbelievable to me!

  8. I enjoyed this one very much, and I’m glad you did, too!

  9. Jenny says:

    After our conversation about 1980s TV shows, that A-Team thing is hilarious! Dave added Buck Rogers to the list of 1970s/80s sci-fi shows, by the way.

    • Teresa says:

      And that’s another one I didn’t watch, although I remember it existing. I was such a late adopter of sci-fi. I think I saw it as my brother’s turf. Why that didn’t apply to The A-Team I have no idea. From what I remember, it was a family show for us.

  10. Everyone loves this book so so so much. Is it possibly one of those things where I will be disappointed because it got hyped too much? You think?

    • Teresa says:

      It’s certainly possible. It’s not the best book ever or anything, but it is a good book. Once hype gets to a certain point, I always assume I’ll be disappointed, so it’s a pleasant surprise when I’m not.

  11. Cora says:

    Rainbow Rowell has been attracting me for soooooo long! Then I finally read Eleanor and Park-and l o v e d it!I’m really excited to read Landline and if you haven’t really read Attachments!

    Regards,

    Cora

    http://boography.blogspot.com

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