Written by Hannah Gill
The first sentence of “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell tells its readers the book is going to be mired in the 1986 Midwest, with references both high and low brow. The rest of the chapter proves Rowell understands teenagers, and that she isn’t going to sugar coat their courage or depravity in all its quick-fire brevity.
Eleanor boards Park’s bus in that first chapter, and his apprehension is evident, “Park turned toward the plexiglass window and waited for a world of suck to hit the fan.” This sets up the novel. Teenage misfit Eleanor is dirt-poor and adjusting to living in an abusive alcoholic home. To make matters more difficult, she has a steadfast personality and a Romanesque body.
Cue the bullying, sibling rivalry and dark, tense cloud of ever approaching violence. Park- maintaining his status in the middle of the high school hierarchy and differentiated by his taste in clothes, music, and Asian-American heritage- is the bright spot of Eleanor’s life. What starts as comic and music sharing escalates to hand holding, and you’re going to need Park to open that plexiglass window, because it gets intense.
Remember that first crush at whom you couldn’t stop staring, as if every time you looked he or she was exactly the same and enchantingly different? So does Rowell, saying from Eleanor’s perspective the first time Park holds her hand, “then he slid the silk and his fingers into her open palm. And Eleanor disintegrated.”
The references are plenty and enrich Eleanor and Park’s world. Some, like the Beatles, today’s teens will recognize, others they should look up. MLK and Emily Dickinson share space with Doctor Who and the Smiths. Rowell breathes the world of Walkmans and mixed-taped love that will resonate with share-happy Millennials.
The emotion viscously pours from the character’s perspective. Park doesn’t like Eleanor, he needs her, but she one-ups him by saying, “I don’t think I even breathe when we’re not together, […] when I see you on Monday morning, it’s been like sixty hours since I’ve taken a breath.”
Sure it’s grandiose, but that’s their love. All encompassing in a world where no one else provides them unconditional support. A society that, of course, will bring a world of suck to their fan.
Rowell was an Omaha World-Herald columnist, where Eleanor and Park live and empathizes with Eleanor. The book, and her first YA, took off with attention from author John Green. The novel was a 2014 Printz Honor and is a decorated favorite. Her first book, “Attachments,” will have a companion adult novel in July titled “Landlines.” In the meantime, her second YA, “Fangirl,” showed her versatility in adult and YA literature.
She now writes full time and is frequently on tour. Signed and personalized copies of all her books can be ordered from The Bookworm for cost plus shipping.
Rowell’s real strength is her ability to see from the character’s perspective, whether they are young or old. She allows them to reflect while resisting the urge to insert hard and fast moralities teens will already have heard from counselors and parents. Her experience with perspective and empathy are at David Levithan and Green level.
Like Green and Leviathan, Rowell hits at topics many writers fear to tread. Poverty, abuse, bi-racial families and what art means to society are woven easily and with sincerity through “Eleanor & Park.” Thus, it will fit happily into the hand of teenagers, but should not be skipped by adults.
Readers desiring easy romance, whose largest hurdles are parents with reasonable expectations and friend-zoning, may see Susan Cooper for material. Readers who want Romeo and Juliet, minus the 13-year-old rich snots and plus dynamic real-world characters with truly Shakespearean conundrums, please give “Eleanor & Park” a chance. They will charm, delight and possibly crush your soul. As Rowell promises on her website, “you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.”