I first heard about Rainbow Rowell’s book Eleanor and Park on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast in August 2012, and it finally appeared at my local library in March 2013. The book is labeled as young adult fiction, so I expected to finish it fairly quickly. Over the next week, I read it three times, each time hoping that I would uncover something new, just to make the story last longer.
Eleanor and Park takes place over one school year in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1986. Its protagonists and title characters are misfits for a variety of reasons, but those reasons don’t feel contrived or trite like in other YA novels. Eleanor is new in school, a “big girl” with tons of red curls and a penchant for men’s ties. Park is “the only Asian kid in school,” who loves comic books and doesn’t really like his friends. They both live in the Flats neighbourhood of Omaha, but while Park lives with his parents and (much taller) younger brother in a sterile, knick-knack filled house, Eleanor shares a tiny bedroom with a gaggle of younger siblings and lives in constant fear of her abusive stepfather.
The book is filled with a sense of desperation—Park’s desperation to be left alone and also to be recognized as his own person, Eleanor’s desperation to survive in her hellish home, and the desperation felt between the two of them to simply be together. It’s hard to remember that the mere act of being alone together can feel insurmountable at that age. Politics of friendship, high school hierarchies, and keeping the bedroom door open are all barriers to teenage love, but Eleanor and Park have more to contend with. As an adult reading this book, I kept wanting to tell our heroes that things won’t feel so hopeless in a few years, but it became clear that they wouldn’t have believed me anyway. And how could they? Eleanor can’t take a bath in her own house after her stepfather gets home, and has to hide everything Park gives her in an old wooden box under her mattress. Park’s dad, a Korean war vet, worries aloud about Park’s masculinity after Park wears eyeliner to school.
The beauty of Eleanor and Park lies in the characters’ ability to say the things that we all wish we could say, precisely because of their age. It doesn’t feel melodramatic or cliché to read the words of love, confusion, and bone-crushing sadness, because Rowell has given them such realistic and engaging voices. She writes from both characters’ perspectives, often during the same event. When Park and Eleanor first hold hands on the bus (“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive”), I dug my fingers into my palms to see if I could feel it too. When Eleanor is the victim of a cruel prank, I squirmed and hid behind my hair in sympathy. And when Park and Eleanor have their first phone call, I had butterflies in my stomach too. This closeness to the characters gives the reader no opportunity to get outside of the story—we are with them in the Flats, at school, and in Park’s car. I was right there when Eleanor panics about Park potentially touching her stomach. I identified with Park’s discomfort as he realizes what sacrifices his Korean mother has made for him to have a “normal” life that he hates. And by the end of the book, I was also filled with desperation and longing for what could be, while having a slight inkling that something bad might happen. But the latter idea is easier to ignore when all you can think about is how much you need someone else beside you to make it through the day.
“All I do when we’re apart is think about you, and all I do when we’re together is panic. Because every second feels so important. And because I’m so out of control, I can’t help myself. I’m not even mine anymore, I’m yours, and what if you decide that you don’t want me? How could you want me like I want you?” – Eleanor