He’d stopped trying to bring her back.
I’m going to tell you guys a little story about me. I didn’t have my first REAL boyfriend that involved a REAL, RECIPROCATED love until I was seventeen. This may seem about normal to most people (and in hindsight, it even seems normal to me), but at the time it felt like I reached this major coming of age milestone about a million years later than the rest of my peers. Just about a month into the relationship, my dog escaped the morning before my mom and I were supposed to go camping in Joshua Tree for five days. We even chased him in a car and STILL couldn’t catch him (he was really, really fast). On the way to school my mom told me that if she couldn’t catch him by a certain time, we couldn’t go on our trip. I went to school that morning wishing, HOPING, that maybe, just maybe, my asshole dog would be uncatchable for just the right amount of time so I wouldn’t have to go that long without talking to, let alone seeing, my boyfriend. Alas, at the designated hour I was called down to the office to leave, and my boyfriend and I walked down together with me in tears. Tears! So much drama! I sometimes look back on those days and chuckle a little chuckle before I resume contemplating the blackness of my adult heart.
My point is, I remember what that first love in all its overwhelming ridiculousness felt like so clearly, which is why I loved Rainbow Rowell‘s Printz Honor winning Eleanor & Park (St. Martin’s Griffin) in spite of myself. Even though it had a shiny medal on it and even though so many of my peers sang praises of this book, I kept looking at it on the shelf, and eventually on my coffee table, thinking “I’ll read it next, right after I finish this tight ass book about dragons.” A realistic fiction novel about first loves just really didn’t sound like my thing, but then I finally forced myself to read it and I finished it in more or less one sitting if you don’t count bathroom breaks.
Eleanor & Park is the story of two misfits who, shock of all shocks, meet and fall in love. Eleanor is overweight with an abundance of red hair and a marked lack of just about anything else material; her mom is in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic, and Eleanor has just returned to her family of a bajillion siblings after a year of estrangement to get away from her vile stepfather. Park comes from a stable, loving family, but feels like an outcast due to his mixed heritage (his mother is Korean) and his punk rock leanings, both of which mark him as a little bit too different in the setting of 1986 Nebraska. The two misfits meet on Eleanor’s first day of school, when she has no choice but to sit with Park on the bus. Their initial hostility thaws bit by bit as they read comics together and exchange mix tapes, and then, shazaam! First love.
This is a pitch perfect visitation of first love, at least for me. The descriptions of borderline obsessiveness that still feel so fresh and innocent, and so overwhelming for being the first time feeling that way, brought on wave after wave of nostalgia for me. I think what marked this as different from the gagging melodramatic chick lit books that I tend to avoid was how real both of the characters felt, and how timid they were about sharing their feelings for each other. Most of the dramatic musings about the intensity of their feelings are private, and whenever they happen to share them with each other, these outpourings are often accompanied by fear and rampant insecurity, which felt very true to life.
Both of the characters have their own independent stories that hold their own weight in the plot. In particular, the side story of Eleanor’s abusive home is full of tension, and one of my only real complaints about the book is the lack of resolution on that front. Without giving too much away, at the conclusion of the novel I really wanted to know what happened to the rest of her family. We spend so much time with them throughout the novel that it seems a bit cheap to leave them out of the resolution.
There have also been some discussions as to Rowell’s treatment of Park’s Korean heritage, and some of Eleanor’s…errrm…racist thoughts about him. You can check out YA author Ellen Oh’s thoughts here; richincolor also has a good discussion of this topic as well as a list of links with other perspectives at the bottom of the post. Rainbow Rowell also addresses her decision to make Park Korean-American here. Honestly, I feel like as a white woman I don’t have the right perspective to say whether or not Rowell’s depiction of Park and his Korean mother was kind of fucked up or not. There were definitely parts that bothered me. Why does Park’s mom have to be this petite, beautiful woman who is compared to a China Doll who speaks in sing-songy, broken English? To me that screamed of stereotypes, and I understand why so many readers have taken issue with the representation of Park’s family.
Eleanor is a different case, though. Are some of Eleanor’s thoughts truly problematic or are they a fair representation of, let’s face it, a super bright but kind of white trash girl who grew up ignorant in the Midwest in the 1980s? Even though she does have some truly assy thoughts, they fit in with the perspective of her character, especially in the context of the setting. I may be making myself very unpopular here, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the job of literature to always present a positive perspective in the form of the main character. Eleanor has a lot of admirable traits, but she is still a victim of her situation in life that is very constrained by a time and a place. Was it necessary to include some of her more ignorant trains of thought? Maybe not. Does it work with her perspective as a character? I think it does, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have a flawed protagonist.
So, overall, I think this book is pretty stellar, though not without flaws and certainly full of material that would make for some beefy discussion and/or screaming.
As for musical accompaniment, considering the lengthy discussions of the music of the day, I chose Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” It’s one of the first songs that Eleanor and Park fall in love with together via mix tape, and marks one of the first steps towards falling in love with each other.
Where I got it: the Library