I don’t think I could have picked a better book to drag me out of my post-Christmas reading slump. Opening Eleanor and Park is like diving into a great big box of feelings.
This is a love story that manages to be heart-rendingly beautiful and starkly realistic at the same time.
Eleanor and Park are both outsiders, though to varying degrees. Eleanor is the new girl who would stand out anyway with her less than svelte-like frame and mop of flame red curls. Much to Park’s initial discomfort, her lack of interest in conformity makes her stand out even more. Park’s Asian heritage and less-then-traditional masculinity mark him out as an outsider but, somehow, he has managed to buy himself enough social currency to exist – relatively peacefully – on the fringes.
The novel’s setting seems quite specific – an American high school in the mid-1980s – but its content is universal. Rainbow Rowell skillfully captures the thorny politics of teenage friendships and what it means to be the outsider. She also unflinchingly evokes Eleanor’s difficult – often traumatic – home life.
What Rowell captures most skillfully of all, though, is the heady feelings of first love. Her writing is deeply romantic without ever being mushy or sentimental, largely thanks to sharp, concise one-liners like this:
Park had the sort of face you painted because you didn’t want history to forget it (p. 144).
Rowell endows Eleanor with a wisdom beyond her years; whilst Park dreaming of a happy ever after, she – quite understandably given her starkly different circumstances – is more clear-sighted. This clear-sightedness breathes a certain melancholy into the narrative, making the novel even more emotive:
Eleanor had never dreamed anything as nice as this, as nice as Park, sleepy-soft and warm … Warm through. Someday, she thought, somebody’s going to wake up to this every morning (p. 322).
We never get to know whose vision of first love wins out – Park’s idealistic version or Eleanor’s more realistic take – thanks to a heart-thuddingly ambiguous ending. I have read two of Rowell’s novels for adults – Landline and Attachments. These novels made me an instant Rowell fan, illustrating her ability to create three-dimensional characters you really care about and marking her out as that rare thing – a writer who can make you laugh out loud. However, I felt that both novels had very rushed endings that left swathes of the narratives unresolved. In contrast, the ambiguity of Eleanor and Park‘s finale is perfectly judged and strengthens, rather than weakens, the novel.
All in all, a stirringly romantic book that still manages to be unsentimental and thought-provoking in parts. Simply life-enhancing stuff.