"Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn't supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something." - Park, Rainbow Rowell
Greetings fellow bibliophiles. I am pretty excited about this week’s recommendation. Eleanor & Park is where my love for Rainbow Rowell began. It became an instant favourite of mine. I’ve read it twice already and will no doubt come back for more. I don’t think a parallel universe exists in which I don’t love this book. I mean come on, it’s a story about two nerdy, X-Men loving misfits who fall in love on a bus in the 1980’s. This book was made for me. Aside from being one of the cutest off-beat romances I've ever read, this book also deals with some pretty heavy themes. It handles its subject matter both delicately and beautifully.
This novel tackles everything from identity, body image and bullying, to domestic and child abuse. Eleanor & Park was Rainbow Rowell’s first young adult novel and it was published in 2013. It is a #1 New York Times bestseller and does come with a warning that it isn’t suitable for younger readers. It sparked controversy upon its release due to its subject matter and coarse language. However, it was defended by the National Coalition Against Censorship and has been hailed for its honest and powerful portrayal of the issues it deals with. The story is set in Nebraska in 1986 (the year I was born). It is narrated by both Eleanor and Park.
Eleanor has always stood out. She has curly red hair and has always been taller and fuller figured than her peers. Not only is she often picked on for her size and hair, her fashion sense also makes her a constant source of ridicule. Eleanor’s family are very poor. She buys most of her clothes at goodwill stores and can seldom find her size. Therefore, often her clothes are mismatched and too big. Unfortunately for Eleanor, the bullying doesn’t end at school. She has an extremely abusive stepfather, Richie. She often wakes up or arrives home to see her mother sporting new bruises. Richie’s abuse is both physical and emotional. He is constantly drunk and yelling, throwing his fists around in order to control Eleanor’s mother, Sabrina. The abuse also extends to the kids. Eleanor and her younger siblings are often hit and insulted by this foul creature. There are five children in total and they all sleep in a tiny room with one set of bunk beds. Eleanor and her sister take the bunks, while the boys sleep on the floor. They don’t even have basic necessities like shampoo, deodorant, or even toothbrushes. Eleanor literally has nothing to look forward to when she wakes up each morning, until she meets Park.
Park is Half Korean; he pretty much is the entire Asian population at his school. Like Eleanor, he also struggles with his identity and body image. His dad is an Irish war veteran and his mother is Korean. He is viewed as Korean, yet he’s never even been to Korea. He knows people view him differently, but his father is well respected within the community so he is never really picked on. Park’s race isn’t the only thing that makes him feel different from the other guys at school. He has never been into sports or wild parties. He loves music and comic books. He prefers to wear black clothing, usually T-shirts with his favourite alternative bands printed on them. He’s always felt like the black sheep of the family. His father and brother are both tall, burly and sports mad. Park is small and slim like his mother. One day, to his families’ dismay he starts wearing eyeliner. Needless to say, they don’t like it. But Eleanor does.
These two loveable misfits meet on the school bus. Eleanor’s tormenters have fixed it so that she has nowhere to sit on the bus. Oblivious to why this awkward looking girl is causing a scene in the middle of the bus, Park rudely offers her a seat before she’s yelled at by the bus driver. The chemistry isn’t instant. They don’t quite know what to make of each other at first. But day after day, they sit next to each other. Park observes that Eleanor is quite the academic. In fact, she’s one of the smartest girls in school. Park reads X-men comics on the school bus. He notices Eleanor often sneaks a peek, so he slows down so she can read with him. They form an unspoken bond. One day Park offers Eleanor an earphone so she can listen to his mixtapes. A connection quickly forms and soon the silence between them is broken. Romance quickly blossoms through their shared love of music and X-Men comics. Now, the pair simply can’t stop talking.
Eleanor may hate her image but Park loves everything about her, and vice versa. At first, Eleanor is quite difficult. She finds it hard to accept and adjust to Park’s affections. It’s not something she’s used to. But Park is sensitive and sweet and gradually she learns to soften. He makes her mixtapes and lends her comics to read at home. These are luxuries she isn’t used to. Gifts aren’t things she’s often received. She is afraid they’ll get ruined, so she keeps them hidden away. Their romance is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It is honest, awkward, heart wrenching, and charming. I could discuss the reasons why I love this pair all day, but I don’t wanna give everything away. Trust me, they’re just so freaking cute.
Cuteness aside, there’s some dark material in this novel. Throughout the story the abuse Eleanor receives, both at school and at home, escalates. Her school locker is plastered with sanitary pads and someone is writing cruel and perverted messages in her text books. Richie gets more and more disgusting as the story builds. He constantly comments on Eleanor’s weight and there’s this uncomfortable feeling that his abuse may turn from emotional and violent to sexual at any minute. These characters provide a well needed escape for each other. They become one another’s light in the dark. Eleanor’s home life gets increasingly unstable. It becomes apparent that she may have to leave for her own safety. She has relatives she could stay with in Minnesota. Will circumstances rip them apart?
I haven’t even scratched the surface of why I love this book or what makes it great. But, if I say much more there won’t be any point in you reading it. It is a gritty, tender, funny and achingly beautiful story. Its themes are unflinching and universal. You don’t just read this book, you feel it. These characters became more than just protagonists in a story to me. It was as if they became real people and I fell in love with them. I read each page with immense anticipation because I really cared about what happed to them. This is Rowell’s greatest gift. If you feel you may be interested in this author, I would start with this one.
So there concludes another recommendation and my Rainbow Rowell triple bill. Due to my work schedule and in order to meet my novel deadlines, I’ll be changing these book recommends from weekly to monthly. Also, I’ve picked all my faves from my bookshelf and I don’t wanna end up recommending stuff I don’t love whole heartedly. I will be back again in September to talk about my favourite book I’ve read that month. Plus that will give me more time to add other content like poetry and short stories, so stay tuned. Until next time, may your days be filled with peace, love & poetry.
"I just can't believe that life would give us to each other" he said, "and then take it back."
" I can," she said. "Life's a bastard." - Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell