There are some couples you just want to work out, you want it to the core of your being. It seems like there’s always huge adversity for these couples, too. In John Green’s amazing “The Fault in Our Stars,” Hazel and Augustus both have serious cancer. In Rainbow Rowell’s spectacular “Eleanor & Park,” the problem is with Eleanor’s family.
The two meet the first day of school, 1986. Park is on the Cool Kids periphery, meaning he has his own seat on the bus. Eleanor gets on, and she can’t find a place to sit. Finally, Park tells her–less than politely–just to sit with him, already, so the bus can move. Park ignores her, listening to his Walkman and reading comics. As the school year progresses, he notices that Eleanor is reading the comics along with him. He’s intrigued by this.
They move with glacial slowness toward friendship, one of the stumbling blocks being that each is crazy about the other, and too insecure to mention it. Eleanor goes to Park’s house for dinner one night, and they share a first kiss in the dark alley alongside his house.
This is no big deal, right? They can go out on dates like any other couple, right?
Nope. The reason is named Richie, and he’s Eleanor’s mom’s second husband. He is a rat-bastard, too, a cruel, violent drunk, who seems to take joy in keeping everyone scared and miserable. Eleanor has nobody she can tell, nobody to trust. When she spends afternoons with Park, she says she’s visiting a girlfriend’s house.
Eleanor and Park belong together. They’re both intelligent and funny. Also, neither is considered especially good-looking by 1986 Omaha, Nebraska, standards, but each thinks the other is unimaginably beautiful.
For Eleanor, things at home escalate to the point where she’s in danger. Park knows what he has to do to save the girl he loves, even though it could imperil their love…possibly even end it.
This book grabbed me from page one, and didn’t let go till I got to the end. As chaotic as Eleanor’s house is, Park’s is full of life and happiness. They share their lives with one another, but more importantly, they make mix-tapes. (C’mon. It was 1986! Of COURSE they made mix-tapes!)
There is no more potentially hellish place than high school, especially if you stand-out. Late in the book, Eleanor learns that the “cool kids” have tough lives, too, and they learn that the big, odd, red-haired girl is really kinda cool in her own right.
As a couple, Eleanor and Park have their ups and downs. It’s clear to us they are perfect for each other, and when they squabble, we want to yell at them.
What author Rainbow Rowell does best is to work sharp, funny dialogue into the pair’s conversations. When Park’s mother applies eye liner to him, showing Eleanor how it’s done, his eyes stand out remarkably. Eleanor looks at him with amazement, saying “You look like a protagonist!”
That’s a brilliant line, and Park is a brilliant protagonist. He’s a little cocky and aloof, until Eleanor makes him a gobsmacked mess. Eleanor is a loner, because nobody has ever bothered to get to know her. Through her experiences with Park, she grows a little more self-confident (she’ll never be prom queen, but she does make some friends).
“Eleanor & Park” is funny in parts, sad in others, and it leaves a thick film of nostalgia for high school. High school is tough for most of us. We’re dealing with “the opposite sex” for the first time, and our bodies keep betraying us. I remember worrying about things that ended up being nothing. I’m still befuddled in relationships, for example, and I generally feel like a complete dork most of the time.
One tragic loss from that time of innocence…I haven’t made a mix-tape for anyone in years, and I made one helluva mix-tape. Beaming somebody an iPod playlist just isn’t the same.
Most Highly Recommended.