Book Review: 'Eleanor & Park'
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014
Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 00:01
Many people over the age of 17 look down on young adult books. Except for the random outlier — “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” are probably the most notable examples — most people think that novels geared towards teenagers are inherently inferior, too sappy or shallow or corny. I know this to be true because I was one of those people; even before I’d graduated from high school, I thought I was too mature to read young adult books, which was silly.
Those are awful reasons to miss out on Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park”, which was released last year and which received a Printz Honor — an award given by the American Library Association to the best books written for teens — this week.
The author, Rowell, lives in Nebraska and has published four novels to date. Acording to her bio, “She always writes about people who talk a lot. And people who feel like they’re screwing up. And people who fall in love.”
Rowell’s book is a gorgeous love story of two misfits, Eleanor and Park, who form an improbable bond in the face of adversity from their peers and their families.
Rowell’s book switches between their two perspectives as it slowly tells the story of how they come together. Park, half-Korean and nerdy, is a bit of a loner who enjoys having a seat on the bus all to himself. But then Eleanor shows up — fat, frizzy-haired, mismatched — and sits next to him, invading his safe space.
But over time, and despite themselves, the two come together. A bond forged over “X-men” comics and The Smiths turns into an intense first love, but, of course, things are never that easy. Eleanor is poor, and lives with many siblings, her mother and an abusive stepfather in an apartment that barely fits them all. They don’t even have a phone, let alone enough food to eat. The novel cleverly conveys how Park struggles to connect with Eleanor, who can be incredibly introverted and confusing, simultaneously pushing him away and wanting him.
Overall, it’s a beautiful account of first love. Like almost all first loves, it’s intense and consuming, and doomed from the start. You’ll breeze through the pages, eager to find out what happens next. Eleanor and Park are the type of smart, interesting high school kids I thought I was four years ago but definitely wasn’t, so it’s lovely to spend some time in their smart, incisive heads.
Eleanor is also just an amazing character to find in a young adult book — or any book, really. Most books don’t have main characters that are fat and/or poor, so Eleanor brings a refreshing change of pace. It’s hard for her to see herself as beautiful, so it’s really empowering to read Park’s account of how much he loves her and how beautiful he finds her. It’s a feeling most people can relate to — not thinking you’re attractive even when people tell you that you are — and Rowell brings those experiences to life in a way that’s never patronizing or stale. Eleanor is a rich, interesting character, whose weight doesn’t define her but makes for an interesting aspect of her struggles.
The novel also maintains a high amount of suspense. From the title alone, you can guess that they’ll get together, but from there it’s impossible to tell what will happen next. The ending was a complete surprise for me, but it made sense and left me with a lot to think about long after I closed the book.
Overall, read this if you’ve ever felt like a misfit, if you’ve ever had a consuming, insane love, if you’ve ever wanted to have a consuming, insane love or if you need to be reminded that sometimes the best, freshest stories being told are written down in books technically intended for people younger than you.
Rowell’s other books definitely seem like they would be worth checking out, including “Fangirl”, about a girl whose love of fandom gets in the way of her life (it was the first read of the Tumblr book club, fittingly enough). If it’s half as smart and well-written as “Eleanor and Park”, it will be another enjoyable read.