ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
I loved Rainbow Rowell’s young adult novel Eleanor & Park, and every adult I know who’s read it loved it, too. Once again we have a case of a book intended for teen readers grabbing the hearts of adults. Do we grownups love this book because it’s set in 1986? Do we love the unlikely protagonists? Or are the unusually well-drawn adult characters that we don’t often see in a book for younger readers part of the appeal? I suppose it’s all of the above.
Eleanor, 15, is new to school in Omaha, and must face bullies everywhere she goes. At school, classmates mercilessly tease her and play pranks on her for little more than being overweight, for her strange and repetitive clothes, and for her wild red hair. The kids on the bus call her Big Red. Yet as unwelcome and harassed as Eleanor feels at school, she only feels more so at home where her stepfather, Richie, is an abusive tyrant who wastes the little money he makes on alcohol. Eleanor’s mother is unable to serve as a true caretaker for Eleanor and her siblings who share one room and are always hungry and neglected.
Park rides the same bus to school and although he fits in better with his peers, his identity as half-Korean and his lack of athletic ability has always made him feel like an outsider. Through a subtle sharing of comic books and music while riding the bus to school, Eleanor and Park form a friendship and then a romantic relationship that defies the “rules” of high school and maybe even the “rules” of fiction written for teens.
A huge part of Eleanor & Park’s charm is the way Rowell takes characters who often exist solely as the sidekicks in novels, movies, and television shows and makes them into leads. It’s also no surprise that adults are enjoying a well-written love story set in 1986 complete with pop cultural references that feel so spot-on. Readers of a certain age (ahem) seem nostalgic for stories that remind us of life before Facebook and even before the internet. Also, I think that many of us, in our own ways, can also relate to being the “other.”
I want to add that another refreshing piece of the plot was Rowell’s treatment of the adult characters. Eleanor’s mother is flawed and her stepfather is terrifying. The disfunction in that household is central to the story, which makes those supporting characters more nuanced than the typical adults in these stories who often blend into the background. Park’s parents are just as important, but for different reasons. They are madly in love with each other, and although they’re a bit wary of Park spending all of his time with Eleanor at first, they eventually become a refuge for a girl who has few others (not even teachers) worrying about her life.
Eleanor & Park, made me think of high school love, of the first everything in the romance department down to the details of someone holding your hand for the first time. All the waiting and wondering for phone calls and notes, all that hoping–Rowell manages to take the reader back in time to our own memories.
Now all of us who are super fans of Eleanor & Park can wait impatiently together for the movie. It’s official that Dreamworks picked up the film rights. How refreshing it will be to see Hollywood follow Rowell’s unconventional choices for the principal roles. Whether they like it or not, the movie team will have to search for some new faces and “types.” I can’t wait to see who they cast.
Have you read Eleanor & Park? What did you think?