Eleanor and Park–Rainbow Rowell (2013)

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Rowell, Rainbow.  Eleanor and Park.  St. Martin’s Griffith, 2013.  336p.  Realistic Fiction (maybe Historical? Are books set in the 1980s considered historical now?)

Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park tells the story of two very different teenagers who discover an extraordinary love in that most ordinary of places–a school bus.  Eleanor is the new girl at school; big, redheaded, with a figure “like a barmaid” (her words), Eleanor has moved back in with her mother, her abusive stepfather, and her four siblings after a year of sleeping on a family friend’s couch.  Park is the local; half-Korean, into music and comic books, forever a member of the almost-popular crowd, Park doesn’t expect anything much to come of having to share his seat on the bus with this unusual newcomer, except maybe a little embarrassment.  Throughout the course of the school year, Eleanor and Park’s relationship deepens from friendship into something much, much bigger, reminding readers of the intensity, absorption, and frequent futility of first love.

Thoughts– I finished this book two days ago, and I’ve been trying to process it ever since.  My thoughts and feelings about it are complex because, on the one hand, I really loved Rowell’s writing style, the setting, the details, and the character of Park; on the other hand, I felt very perplexed by the tone and the character of Eleanor.  I wanted so badly to say, “Home run!  This is a Mary Poppins book* for me!” and I can’t.  What I can do is try to tease out both the stellar qualities and the difficulties I found in Eleanor and Park.

First, the awesome:  Rainbow Rowell is a badass writer.  Her prose is filled with quirky little nuances and references that breathe so much life into the characters and provide little puzzles for the reader if, say, you don’t get the reference.  Also, the setting is incredibly well-done.  A lot of times in realistic YA fiction, the setting is just a backdrop for the story; you don’t really get much world-building.  That is SO not the case here–you feel like Marty McFly gave you his Delorean and plopped you down smack in the middle of Omaha, Nebraska circa 1986.  Every detail of the setting and time period is so pitch-perfect…I vividly remember the perms, frosted lipstick, and music of the 80s, and I think Rowell nails almost everything.  She does a particularly good job with the character of Park; it’s easy to see why Eleanor falls so hard for him.  Park is a complex, achingly real teenage boy, and I especially liked the shifting narrative between the two main characters because it allowed us into his head, something that doesn’t often happen in YA romances. (Usually the entire book is from one or the other partner’s perspective.  While this makes it easy to swoon over great male characters, like Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Starsit’s nice to see both sides of the story every now and then).

Now for the less awesome:  I have to say, straight up, I just didn’t like Eleanor very much.  I wanted to so, so desperately because I mostly loved the book otherwise, but I just didn’t get her.  At all.  I felt like maybe the reveal as to WHY Eleanor behaved the way she did towards Park in the beginning happened too late in the narrative for me.  Or maybe my lack of experience with the things in Eleanor’s life kept me from connecting with her as a character.  I still am not sure, but I know it cast a shadow over this book for me.  In addition to my difficulties with Eleanor, I had trouble with the overall tone of the book.  I felt this sense of impending doom THE ENTIRE TIME I WAS READING.  I knew an ugly cry was coming for me, and it was like a weight on my brain that I just couldn’t shake.  I kind of thought I was missing something because I had read so many great reviews talking about how wonderful the romance was between Park and Eleanor, but I just couldn’t help thinking to myself, “This is going to end badly.  I just know it” and that kept me at a distance.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Dude. Lauren. Just tell us whether we should read it or not.”  So–you should read it, especially if you like the heartbreaking thing John Green has going on in a lot of his books.  I did very much enjoy Rowell’s writing, and it was fun to be back in a time before Web 2.0 and cell phones and all the tech-y things we have going on today.  Also, I want to say that just because a book is problematic for me doesn’t mean it’s “bad,” per se.  Obviously, it made me think, and that’s always a good thing.  And the sentence-level writing is just so very glorious.  I’m about to read an e-galley of Rainbow Rowell’s upcoming book Fangirl, so I hope to post a glowing review (one where I just adore everything) for that one–I guess we’ll see!

*”practically perfect in every way”…if you don’t get the reference, then your childhood was obviously lacking in coolness.

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