Book Review: Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

This book came highly recommended by pretty much everyone I know when it first came out; it seemed like everywhere I looked, people were talking up Eleanor & Park with great enthusiasm, so I was definitely excited to read it. I don’t read a significant amount of straight contemporary YA (I tend more towards urban fantasy, fantasy, magical realism, and other iterations), and I tend to be somewhat choosy about it; but just because it’s not my favourite genre doesn’t mean I loathe it on sight or don’t find it worth reading. In the case of Eleanor & Park, the genre is showcased at its best, but be warned: this book will probably devastate you.

It’s 1986, and Eleanor is the new girl, riding the bus every day and being mocked for her hair, her clothes, and her very manner of moving. She’s an outcast and a misfit because of her poverty. When she sinks onto a bus seat next to Park, who ignores her at first, she feels more isolated than ever, until gradually, they establish a friendship over comics and music; a friendship that ultimately pushes Park away from some of his more popular friends as he and Eleanor begin an orbit around each other that, for a while, excludes the outside world.

One of the problems I (and others) often note with contemporary YA is that the characters mysteriously love all the music that was popular when the author was a teen, as though no new music has been released since then; it’s jarring to have, say, ’90s bands referenced in a novel set in the present day, and illustrates a lack of research and engagement with youth on the author’s part. One of the things I love about Eleanor & Park is that the use of music is important to the plot, but not in a way that’s disorienting, because the story itself is set in 1986; Eleanor and Park listen to the music of the time, the music sets the stage, and the characters interact with the devices of the 1980s in a way that reinforces the setting.

The Walkman becomes an important symbol of their relationship, of how they listen to music, of music as a shared experience. And I think that might be one reason the novel is proving so popular with adults of a certain age range, because it’s a reminder of our own youths. Eleanor & Park is a novel about experiences many of us had not just as kids growing up and navigating the world but also specifically as kids during a certain era; granted, I wasn’t in high school in 1986 or really engaging with society on a meaningful level, but I note that a lot of folks who do fit those criteria are in love with Eleanor & Park and can’t talk this novel up enough, not just because it’s good, but because it has a high nostalgia factor.

This is also, of course, a book about star-crossed love. For once, there’s not a love triangle to be seen, which is delightfully refreshing, and the focus is on a relationship that is doomed by external factors. It’s the kind of book where you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop because you know it’s coming, and Rowell keeps the reader in a constant state of agitation and tension. I suspect I’m not the only reader who had trouble putting it down because I was worried about the characters and I had to see what happened next, even though I knew that there was no way the story could end well.

Eleanor’s stepfather is abusive, and her mother is trapped in a relationship with him that she has difficulty extricating herself from. Eleanor & Park doesn’t flinch away from the realities of multiple children living in an abusive household in a community where people generally turn the other cheek instead of intervening, or the reality of why women don’t leave abusive partners, even when there’s clear evidence that their partners are terrorising not just them, but their whole families. As the plot builds to a crescendo, Eleanor’s relationship with her stepfather becomes more and more tense, and while part of you wants to scream at Eleanor’s mother for allowing this to happen, the other part of you understands exactly why it’s happening, and how these situations are complicated.

Park, who’s lived with his father’s disappointment but in an otherwise fairly safe and sheltered environment, takes time to come to grips with the world Eleanor lives in, and with the shame that Eleanor experiences over the daily indignities of being poor. A single shared bedroom that she sleeps in with all her siblings, a house with no phone, a pantry that’s often empty. For Park, their relationship is a learning experience, but one he struggles with at the same time, because he gives up a lot to be with Eleanor; he goes from being generally liked and respected to becoming an outcast, and must find himself even as he tries to come up with a way to save his girlfriend.

As a sharp, incisive coming of age novel, Eleanor & Park offers a lot of commentary on growing up when you don’t fit in, growing up poor, growing up in a home environment that’s abusive, and struggling to find out who you are even as everyone around you is pressuring you to become the person they want you to be. It’s also brilliantly crafted and elegantly written, with the kind of prose that pulls you under in a determined tide that won’t let you up until the very last page, when, trust me, you’ll be ranting and shaking your fists at the indignity of the world.