I bought Eleanor & Park in support of the author due to a censorship controversy that happened, in which parents in Minnesota convinced a local school district, county board, and local library board to cancel Rainbow Rowell’s reading and speaking events, because they believe the book to be obscene.
I am ridiculously glad I bought this book, because it turned out to be one of my favorite books this year. It’s an incredibly funny and sweet love story between two outcast teenagers. The rub for these parents, I suppose, is that Rowell approached the story with honesty, the teenagers are intimate (but not overtly so) and cuss as a direct result of the abuse and bullying they witness. Rowell is an author who doesn’t pull punches, but she does so skillfully to reveal truth and offer hope in bleak circumstances.
Park is something of an outcast. He’s not tormented by the other kids because of being “grandfathered” into the community as one of the locals, but he still doesn’t quite fit in. He doesn’t meet his dad’s standards of being manly or his school’s standards of being cool, so he kind of floats in an in between place of not being friendless while also being rather lonely.
Eleanor moves back in with her mom, brothers, sister, and abusive stepdad after having been kicked out of the house for a year. The loneliness of having been excluded of her family life has left its mark on her and she feels like an outsider in her own home. Desperate to not be abandoned again, she does her best fit within her step father’s rules, while also avoiding him. At school, her sense of exclusion is continued with bullying from the popular kids, who continually call her names and harass her.
Eleanor and Park meet as she climbs the bus for the first time on the way to school. The bus has its own rules and hierarchies, into which Eleanor does not fit and it leaves her standing in the aisle as the bus jolts into motion. Park’s first intention to is to leave her hanging like the rest, but he scoots aside and lets Eleanor sit with him. What starts out as indifference grows into friendship as the two begin sharing and exchanging music and comics, then as their friendship blooms into trust it becomes love.
I loved Rowell’s writing style, which was clean and occasionally poetic. (“His eyes were so green, they could turn carbon dioxide into oxygen.”) And I love how she structured the story, with it being told from both Eleanor and Park’s point of views. This allowed for one part of the conflict to exist in misunderstandings in the way we perceive ourselves and how we think people perceive us. Neither Park nor Eleanor are mind readers and so often presume the negative (he must hate me, she must be embarrassed by my, he must think I’m fat), when the reality is that the thing one is most embarrassed by is one of the things the other loves most.
The way the relationship grows and changes and becomes slowly more intimate throughout the novel is touching and funny and sad. It’s really a great read and one I would recommend to anyone who likes bitter-sweet romance.