CBR12 BINGO: Nostalgia?
For the Nostalgia BINGO square, I googled “books set in the 80s” and Eleanor & Park came up. Having seen many positive reviews for Rainbow Rowell on CBR, I decided to get it from my local library (hooray for curbside pickup!).
Young Adult isn’t my usual genre. While I always appreciate good storytelling and can admire an author’s attempts to create characters that are relatable to teens, I rarely love a young adult novel. I can enjoy YA, but I’m not often moved by it. Eleanor & Park won me over with the rawness of its emotion.
It feels appropriate that this BINGO square was labeled “Nostalgia?” with a question mark, since there is so much in this book that an adult who wasn’t popular in high school wouldn’t want to relive. Sure, it’s fun to remember those cassette tapes with the plastic cases that cracked when you stepped on them, or recall that Watchmen was first published in 1986. But throw in the trauma of gym class and the cool kids who sat at the back of the bus, and the nerdy teenager in all of us begins to hyperventilate.
Which is not to say that this is a typical “coming of age” story. Eleanor & Park is primarily a love story, but the heroine is surprising in many ways. Her home life is a hellscape, complete with an emotionally abusive stepfather (physically abusive to her mother). She lives in a 2-bedroom house with 4 other siblings, all of them sharing a single bedroom. Their poverty is such that they barely have clothes on their backs or food on the table; when her stepfather gives Eleanor an extravagent $50 for Christmas, she has to sneak it back to her mother to buy groceries. Stepping onto the bus for her first day at a new school, Eleanor might as well have a sign around her neck saying “Please pick on me.” In spite of her situation and the inevitable attention from school bullies, Eleanor rises above the typical victim stereotype. She’s smart and sarcastic and funny. She’s self-conscious without being self-hating.
Park, the Korean-American teen whom Eleanor sits next to on that first day on the bus, has an idyllic home life in comparison. His parents love each other, he’s learning to drive, he has all the music and comic books he could want. Not everything is perfect: his Korean War-veteran dad has some toxic masculinity issues, and it’s apparent that he thinks his older son is too effeminate. Park’s younger brother Josh clearly got the all-American genes from his father, while Park favors his mother’s ancestry. One weakness in this novel is that tension is never adequately resolved. Overall, Park’s father is painted as a decent guy with just a tad too much testosterone; while it’s clear he loves son and comes through when it matters most, the novel never implies that he grows emotionally. Even at the end, he seems to be proud of his son not so much because Park is kind and compassionate, but because he is being a man.
Eleanor & Park is convincing in the way these awkward teens grow from strangers, wary of each other’s weirdness, into young people deeply in love. Their emotions are so deeply exposed that you want to stare straight at the beauty of it while also feeling turning away to give them their privacy. Only the most cynical of readers, or someone who maybe can’t remember how it felt to be 16, could read this book and not be moved to feel both joy and heartache.