*Disclaimer: This review is being written as I watch the NCAA men’s basketball championship game. I apologize in advance if this is written more poorly than usual.
I first heard about Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park here on CBR. The rave reviews it received from many folks forced me to add it to the list and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. What is hard for me now, having finished it, is figuring out how I feel about it. In case you’ve not paid attention or are new to CBR and/or YA fiction, E&P tells the story of two 16-year-olds in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1986. Eleanor is new to school and her first day on the bus, Park allows her to sit next to him – a big deal for their school. Eleanor is noticeable; she is chubby, dresses weird, and has hair the same shade as Bozo the Clown. Park is small, likes punk rock and comic books, and tries to get by not being noticed as the only Asian kid for miles and miles around. Over time the two become friendly, then more than friendly. They fall for each other hard, despite knowing their circumstances don’t make the odds of their relationship lasting very strong.
I wanted to give this book five stars. I almost did; and I might change my mind later. I feel like I would reserve the highest ranking for books I’d reread and while I was incredibly moved by this book, I don’t think I would read it again. This book is devastating. It breaks your heart and stomps on it but you aren’t mad about it really. You feel like it’s for the best and you go about your business after you finish it but it sticks with you for days. I finished it over a week ago and I still find myself turning over different scenes in my head or equating something new from Eleanor or Park’s experiences with my own.
Despite the setting – Midwest, 1980s – I found it easy to identify with both the main characters in this novel. Eleanor especially speaks to the awkward version of me that I was as a teen. I’m still awkward of course, but I don’t have quite the issue with self-esteem that I did at 16. I never have been particularly thin, and in my high school thin was at a premium. So many of the chapters from Eleanor’s point of view mirrored my inner thoughts at her age (and beyond, to be honest). Worrying about gym clothes was constant for me (our uniform had SHORT shorts). Though I didn’t have a physically abusive parent, I did grow up in a house where alcohol was an issue. I can remember walking on egg shells, wondering who would know, who would make fun of me for it, what would set them off, etc. Park reminds me of my high school self as well – not popular, but not unpopular. Not ridiculed (much), but not idolized by any means. Trying to lay low but also not trying to be a dick. What’s so wonderful about Rowell’s characters is their universal appeal – what person can’t identify with some of Park, or some of Eleanor?
I think where this book loses me slightly is Eleanor’s situation at home. Her stepfather is an abusive alcoholic. His only physical target at the point in the novel is Eleanor’s mother. Eleanor and her siblings live in fear of his moods; Eleanor begins the novel having just returned from a year’s residence at a family friend because her stepfather had kicked her out. What is hard for me is that her mother would put her own selfish needs in front of her children’s. I was born in 1979, so I’d consider myself a child of the 80s. Were things so different back then, that teachers ignored bullying despite concrete evidence of it? Did no one call Child Protective Services on people? I’m well aware that CPS can’t fix everything but honestly, I wonder if Eleanor and her siblings wouldn’t be better off in foster care. I continue to be incredibly lucky so perhaps that’s what my problem is here – I had it too good at home (and by no means was it perfect) to know what the bad times were like back then. I hated her mother so much, even more than her stepfather. Park’s parents are kind as well but also surprisingly uninvolved. I guess we as a society are pretty hands off for fear of appearing too nosy or in someone’s business. But for fuck’s sake someone should have helped those kids, their mother certainly wasn’t going to.
The ending of the novel is a mixed bag of emotions. I cried, I smiled. The open-endedness of it makes me want Rowell to write more on these two. I hope she does, I’d definitely read it. I will definitely read other Rowell books, she gets it.