As a 16 yo, I didn’t experience a first love. A couple of crushes, but none of them were anything more than an occasional glance in the lift, or a quickening of pulse when they appeared in front of me. To read Rainbow Rowell describe it so minutely in normal-speak without being elaborate is a welcome peek into a world when feelings run amok, you barely understand what’s happening and yet you feel so much (so – much like my current mid-thirties, GOTCHA, dumb-ass emotions, ergh) – I love how she is able to weave music and the first pangs of a friendship that is more intense than love – in words that don’t feel hyperbolic. Her description of Park and Eleanor – two sixteen-year-old high school kids who first meet on a bus to school where Eleanor is bullied simply because she is new and unlike the others and there to be bullied simply because she exists – is one that you don’t at first picture anyone specific. Eleanor could be anyone, she could be me, or any stranger I come across, I like how she is painted gradually and we learn who she is as the story progresses along.
Speaking of the theme of bullying that runs through the book, I often wonder how teenagers can be so cruel to each other simply because someone exists and they aren’t the same type of person as you – though, given everything at the time of writing this review – nearly all adults are guilty of this very same behavior.
I’ve read RR’s Attachments (a perfect delight), and I am amazed how easily I can read her, like a beautiful babbling brook she is a master at saying something simple in a way that makes you stop and make note (for e.g: “The whole sky was the color of her skin. Eleanor: There’s only one of him, she thought, and he’s right here.”). She grabs me from page one, I can’t not see what she’s trying to say and I end up thoroughly invested in her characters – trying to relate to them and even when I can’t, and end up care for them deeply.
This story especially stays with me because of the music that Park listens to, and introduces to Eleanor. The very act of creating a mix-tape with songs you like and want to share with the one you like – that’s a rite of passage that youth passes through and notwithstanding the rest of the confusion in the landscape of being a high school student, is the one few bright spots of unspoilt joy in just listening to and enjoying something which touches you so deeply it remains with you nearly all your adult life. I still fondly remember the people who introduced me to music I still love – two decades later – so Park is someone I like beyond this book; he is real to me in ways several book characters have not been!
What hurdles they both leap over in the rocky path of a school year – what unexpected allies Eleanor finds at key moments and the emotional journey they make in a year’s time is what this book is about – not much if you observe it impartially, but it is impossible to remain unaffected by this story and I found myself blubbering at my work place (only two chapters remained and I couldn’t wait to get back home and complete them), needing long-distance consoling (thank you for being there, Katie71483!) realising easily that the end was what was needed for the characters, but what a place to arrive at, so unprepared, so real, so much of what we call life.
Not of any less prominence is the portrayal of domestic abuse that Eleanor’s mother faces – a young mother who suffers quietly, whose story arc brings the pathos and the undercurrent of unmitigated helplessness that that is in very small part offset by the querulous joy of Eleanor’s discovery of a family setting outside of her own disastrous experiences at home. This is not a happy book, as much as deals with love and friendship, it hits hard and second-hand rage and hopelessness is a natural accompaniment as you progress through the book. How she manages with this makes up the last couple of chapters but I like that Rowell did not attempt to make it a happy ending in the stereotypical style of most authors who want to neatly wrap up everything. A very moving and enjoyable read in those parts, RR remains a firm favourite of the newer crop of modern authors.
This book counts in the “So Popular!” square of the CBR Bingo. Can’t wait to do the rest!