Review: ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell

I was asked to read this by my book club and I was surprised… YA? Really? Someone’s kid had read it– so anyway, OK. I’m up for it.

I was assured it was a quick, easy read so I dumped it onto Kindle and figured, I’m good at skip-reading. I was not expecting it to blow me away.

Spoiler: IT BLEW ME AWAY! I TOTALLY LOVE THIS BOOK!

Set in the 1980s, Eleanor and Park are people we know. They’re kids on the school bus. He’s the accepted quiet kid with the comics who’s allowed to settle into his seat and not say a great deal. Got a couple of friends and keeps himself to himself.

She’s new. She’s dressed like someone threw up a jumble sale and she’s got wild red hair. She’s every bully’s favourite target and the kids move their bags onto empty seats… only when she reaches the last seat does she speak and it’s with the quiet yet commanding voice of reason. Still she feels it. So Park lets her sit next to her. And the rest is history.

The first few pages have a lot of swearing, and the start is slow. Eleanor sits next to him. Gets to school. Leaves. They don’t speak. The development is so gradual it’s almost imperceptible — Park realises she’s reading his comics, so he slows the turning of the pages to help her share them. They don’t look at each other, then they glance. It’s days before they will speak. More days before they will share music.

This is the slowest of love stories. Hypnotic.

Park, quiet, from a “nuclear family” (loving parents, one sib, cosy home), is sweet and kind. I challenge anyone not to love Park by the end of this book. (That said, I would have liked to see more detail and appreciation of his mother whose Korean background could have played a more positive part in this book.)

Eleanor is the new girl while also trying to hold it together at home, a poverty-stricken household headed by an abusive, aggressive step-father who has already banished her once, separating her from her siblings for months (the beginning of this story marks her return). Her sibs are pleased to welcome her home, but have had to adjust to the stepdad in order to survive; huddling in silence while their mother takes a beating. The flashes of secretive love between the mother and her children, and between the siblings, are as heartbreaking as heartwarming.

The story switches between E&P in alternating chapters.

It’s hard to deconstruct the story for review purposes because the whole was so magical, I melted into it and walked the story as the characters. Eleanor and Park make friends, learn to love each other, and start to come of age. While they’re exploring themselves, their home lives keep pace, things come to a head, and the details are in the book (no spoilers).

The beauty of the book lies in the characters. These are good people facing a harsh reality that they are too young to address alone. We know that if they were empowered to deal with it themselves, they would make good decisions — these are kind, warm kids who genuinely care for one another and their families. They have all the makings of a perfect love story… so will they be allowed to grow, love, and flourish? I spent every page desperate to know that they would be OK — and not as an adult looking on, but as a sixteen-year-old aching to see my first love again. The torture of not seeing one another for a whole evening, or the misery of Friday night, not seeing each other till Monday… The exquisite pleasure of a surreptitious phone call, or unexpected meeting in a corridor. Touching each other’s fingers. The small joys that make our souls soar.

Who hasn’t dreamed of the lover-soulmate-friend who catches our eye and holds us on all levels? Of a love where there is no fear; where trust overrides everything? But there’s no saccharine — and these kids aren’t naive; they know they’re young and that they’re up against it, but they trust one another. They don’t claim to have the answer. The ending was strong.

This book took me places I haven’t been for a long time. I felt it.

I loved it.

Available at Waterstones.

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