Monday, December 2, 2013
Eleanor & Park: A Refreshing YA Love Story
Rowell gives her readers so much to love. I rooted for Eleanor, a red headed, slightly overweight, misfit new girl as she braved her first day of school, the horrible bus (before it became not so horrible), and her despicable step-father. Eleanor's brashness and ability to transcend the pettiness around her rubs off on Park, a quiet Asian kid whose loving family comprised of his Korean war veteran father, Korean mother, and younger but taller brother lives in suburban blissfulness. His parents still make out (much to Park's disdain). Park wants nothing more than to be left alone, to lie low under the radar of high school ridiculousness all around him until he falls for Eleanor through their mutual love of graphic novels, music and each other. Then, he starts to change - getting into fights for Eleanor's honor, wearing a new punk style and not caring what people think or believe about him or Eleanor.
Set in 1986, Rowell's book feels like a John Hughes movie - only better with vibrant and lovable characters who all have heart. I actually pictured Molly Ringwald in certain scenes as I read this book with her pouty lips and defiant stare; she'd be a perfect casting choice for Eleanor.
Rowell reminded me what falling in love feels like. I remembered phone conversations with Eric (who is now my husband) that lasted so long we'd fall asleep with the phone pressed to our ears. I remembered seeing him in the high school hallways and feeling safe and loved and happy and confused all at once. I remember the evolution of our relationship from a joke to a friendship to something so much deeper (it's still going strong after almost 15 years of marriage and the addition of two beautiful daughters in our lives), and Rowell captures all of those feelings in the 325 pages of Eleanor and Park's romance.
When Park first meets Eleanor, he really just wants her to go away, to stop being such an embarrassment for drawing negative attention to herself. "He could remember thinking that she was asking for it . . . That it was bad enough to have a face shaped like a box of chocolates. . . He remembered feeling embarrassed for her. And now . . . Now, he felt the fight rising up in his throat whenever he thought of people making fun of her."
Eleanor possesses the ability to free Park from the shadows, and Park possesses an equal ability to free Eleanor from her hardened shell where she has convinced herself that she needs no one because all the people she loves and trusts most violate that trust with neglect and violence. Park's tenderness and care towards Eleanor melts her and shows her how beautiful love can be, even if she fears needing him. "She wanted to lose herself in him. To tie his arms around her like a tourniquet. If she showed him how much she needed him, he'd run away."
And the book does involve some running away, but not the kind you'd expect. None of this book feels expected, false, empty or forced. Instead it feels like the first moments of love - the real kind - that you lose yourself in because it is so easy and full of happiness even if the world around you feels unkind or confusing. I can already see this book becoming a movie with a killer soundtrack full of 80s music, and a multi-generational following. If you know a teenage girl who loves Sarah Dessen or even Veronica Roth books, you need to get her a copy of Eleanor & Park this Christmas. AND, if you know a 30something 40something woman who grew up in the 80s, you need to get her a copy, too. She'll love you for it.