Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

There's something special about a book that a 30-something-year-old out of shape white dude father and his 12-year-old daughter can enjoy (for different reasons, but still) equally.

Before I get to what's so special about this book, let me share the summary from Goodreads, just in case there's still someone out there who hasn't read it:

Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

Eleanor... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.

Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

(I hate when they use italics in this kind of copy because I like to italicize the whole thing in these un-reviews, but oh well whatever, grumble, grumble)

I was very late to the party reading this book. Like nearly a year late I think, but it doesn't really matter. This is a beautiful, sad, charming, adorable, frustrating, and fascinating book. Rowell gets inside the heart and mind of teenage love like no other.

There are several brilliant things about this book, but the first one I want to focus on is the point of view construct. ELEANOR & PARK is told from an alternating, third-person narrator point of view, focused on one of the two main character's experiences, and then the other. It's not nearly as complicated as I make it sound, but what it is is genius.

This construct has been done before, of course, but in this book it gives the reader a unique insight into the world Eleanor and Park inhabit, and even more so, into the emotions and thoughts and opinions of each other they experience as they fall, surprisingly but unavoidably, in love.

One particular example of how this alternating POV worked so brilliantly that really stuck with me is this: In Eleanor's point-of-view, she often refers to herself (through the narrator) as fat or chubby, or ugly with terrible hair. This is important because I'm sure every teenager feels that way. I certainly did. But what's really beautiful about this book, what really made it shine, to my mind, is that while reading from Park's POV chapters, never once does any of those words describing Eleanor come up. He calls her pretty, beautiful, cute, and even sometimes infuriatingly annoying (but only in an adorable way that still makes her attractive to him).

I think there's a subtle, but very important message here about self image. Rowell handles it with such skill that I wonder if many people even noticed that, but for me it stood out starkly. Both Eleanor and Park actually suffer from it, that lack of self-confidence, that issue with body image and social status, and the never ending teen question of "Do I fit in?" But what they find in each other is someone who sees something more in them. Something beautiful, something that inspires them to love.

Anyway, I don't know. That wasn't the only amazing part about this book, but to me it felt incredibly authentic, and deeply moving that they saw in each other more than they saw in themselves.

Now ... I don't know if I would go so far as to call ELEANOR & PARK historical YA, because I'm not sure it takes place quite long enough ago, but the time period of the setting, which is the 1980s, is so alive and vivid and so exquisitely rendered that I immediately felt taken back to my childhood as if on the wings of a dream.

Not everything about the 80s is Wonder Years type nostalgia, of course, but pretty much all the references in ELEANOR & PARK are fun, genuine, and fill the tale with realism and believability. I was especially struck not only by Park's interesting and unique taste in and love for music, but in his incredibly vast knowledge of both popular and obscure 80s bands. It was clear to me that the author had actually lived in Omaha in the 80s as a teen, and instead of that awareness drawing me out of the story, it only drew me deeper in.

Another thing I love is how much balls this book has. One thing that will always make me give a book a chance is if it's YA, and uses an F-bomb on the first page. I mean, I get it, that's not everyone's thing, but for me, when I was a teenager, I was crass and horny, and angry, and scared, and I want the kids I read about to be just as real, you know? Obviously that kind of thing has to fit the character, and the tone and voice of the novel, but teens who swear always feels more authentic and believable to me than teens who don't.

Man, I could go on, but I think the last two points I'll try to touch on are the romance, and the end. Let's discuss the end first, shall we? We're all misfits here, right? For me, the ending of this book was perfect. I won't give it completely away, because who knows, there may still be some people out there who have not read it, but for me, the sad, ambiguous, frustrating way it ended was just perfect. I get that it might not work for some people (my daughter was certainly disappointed by it) but for me I just think that life is not this neat little perfect thing, and I want the books I read to reflect that, so the fact that SPOILER ALERT it did not all work out in the end END SPOILER just worked very well for me.

Finally, the romance. Let's get one thing straight: I'm a dude. Okay, two things: I'm also pretty jaded. I really don't read romance. And I don't mean like actual romance novels, I mean I honestly don't enjoy reading YA when the main focus of the plot is two people falling in love, or worse, one person deciding which angle of the other two in her triangle she should end up with. Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against love, but reading about it bores me unless there are a lot of explosions and sword fights to distract my male id. But ... in ELEANOR & PARK, there's something ... it's just ... I can't quite put my finger on it, but there's just something about the way these two kids fall in love that is so moving, and so genuine, and so non-cheesy, that it just never made me uncomfortable or bored me the way reading about teen love normally does.

I don't know. I'm a writer, so I should be able to express that better, but I just can't.

What did you all think? If you've read this wonderful book, please share your thoughts in the comments. Also, did anyone else notice the POV thing about Eleanor calling herself fat and Park completely disagreeing?

NOTE: I'm aware of some of the ... diversity critiques of this novel, and I don't necessarily disagree, but that discussion is not the purpose of this post. If you're curious what I'm talking about, Kelly Jensen covered the topic quite well at BookRiot. Mike Jung also wrote a somewhat more personal post on his Tumblr.

I really like Mike's post, because he points out it's possible to love a work and still be troubled by certain aspects of it.

Anyway, I highly recommend you read this novel if you haven't already. You can find out more about Rainbow Rowell here:


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