Allison's Book Bag

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Posted on: March 22, 2014

After a bumpy start due to some rough language and mature subjects, Eleanor and Park has become one of my favorite teen romances. It breaks stereotypes, depicts realistic situations and characters, and doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of life. In other words, this is neither a fluffy romance nor an overwrought tragedy. It’s as real as they come. Eleanor and Park is a poignant love story.

How does Eleanor and Park break stereotypes? It’s main characters are not beautiful. Eleanor is an overweight, fiery red-head who often wears old mismatched clothes in “creative” ways. Park seems to be an average Asian kid — who eventually decides to experiment with make-up. It does not serve up the well-worn tale of the outcast who falls in love with the most popular. When Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus, they only reluctantly acknowledge one another. She needs a seat, and the space next to Park is available. The book also does not offer the oft-used story of the knight-in-shining-armor. Yes, Eleanor lives in an abusive home. And true, although she is a strong survivor, Eleanor can’t avoid being demoralized, frightened into submission, or even kicked out. But Park can’t change her home life. Nor is he old enough to help Eleanor escape her situation through marriage. By now you may have guessed that this is also not the story of the good girl who falls for the bad boy. Park comes from a good home with caring parents, and is pretty much the boy next door. The last cliché that I wish to address involves the first time the two touch one another. One of my biggest gripes about the most teen romances is that they always feature inexperienced kids who never seem to have any difficulty figuring out what goes where. Not so here! Rainbow Rowell gets it right. Eleanor and Park are excited and passionate, but also scared, nervous, and awkward. Which incidentally is why I absolutely adore her two main characters.

At this point, I could actually stop and make this one of my shortest reviews on record. Instead, I’ll share with you some of my favorite moments. For starters, there’s how Eleanor and Park first make contact. Day after day they share a bus bench, and day after day Eleanor avoids talking to him or even looking at him. Which isn’t too difficult, because Park spends every bus ride absorbed in his comics. But with no one to talk to, Eleanor soon finds herself stealing glances at Park’s comics, and, secretly, reading them along with him. When Park realizes this, he’s a little disturbed. And yet he finds himself waiting to turn each page until he’s sure Eleanor is finished. Still the two don’t talk. Instead of finishing his current comic at school during free time, Park saves it so Eleanor can read it “with” him on the bus. And when she gets up at her stop, he hands the comic to her. By this point, both have yet to even say a word to one another. It’s amazing how much Rowell develops a scene through quiet little moments. It’s also so true to life for many actual relationships. It’s page 43 before Eleanor and Park even talk. And then there’s a very awkward moment when Park asks, “So, you like the Smiths?” A four-sentence exchange occurs before school, which then continues after school. Each new stage of their relationship is equally paced, from when they admire each other’s unique traits to when they share funny or heated moments to their first phone call and date. Rowell never rushes any scene. In doing so, she perfectly captures what new love is like, right up to the point that Eleanor and Park hold hands and later verbally declare their love. I could fill many more paragraphs with other favorite moments, but I probably should save something for you to discover. 🙂

At the start, I referenced the fact that Eleanor and Park is more than a romance. Scenes involving other characters often involve a LOT of language which will not sit well with many readers. Rowell also explores many unpleasant situations. Most teens will encounter bullies; Eleanor faces some pretty brutal ones. Rowell grew up with poverty and draws upon those experiences to show how difficult it can be to escape. While Rowell writes about all these and more in a compassionate and honest manner, I would recommend this book ONLY for older teens.

At this time, Eleanor and Park is so popular at my local library that I ran up a bill to keep it long enough to review it. I probably should have just bought it, because both my husband and I are now huge fans. The only reason I didn’t buy it is because Rowell lives fifty miles from us, and so I hope to one day soon meet her at a book signing. Language aside, it’s so nice to see an author accurately capture the agony and ecstasy of first love.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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