“She never felt like she belonged anywhere, except for when she was lying on her bed, pretending to be somewhere else.”–Eleanor & Park
I picked up Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park this weekend because I wanted to read a book that wasn’t about the craft of writing, zombies, hippos going beserk, higher ed, or American religions. Someone somewhere mentioned that I should check out Rowell’s novels, so I downloaded Eleanor & Park to my Kindle.
The novel, set in 1986, traces the friendship and later romance of two 16-year olds. Eleanor is the new girl with bright red curly hair and full figure. Her family is poor, white, and dysfunctional. Her stepfather abuses her mother physically and emotionally. Park comes from a loving family. His mother is Korean and his father was in the armed services, but they don’t entirely understand their oldest son. Park loves comic books and music. He meets Eleanor on the bus. Mutual antagonism turns into kindness; kindness morphs into first love.
Never has any other novel I’ve read evoked what it is like to a teenager in such a humane and profound way. Rowell renders the melodrama of our teenage years not as caricature, but as intense, inescapable reality. Everything appears pressing because everything is pressing and significant and life-ending. Bullying is a fact of life as are shallow judgments about worth based on appearance, class, and race. Teenagers come into their humanity fighting against burdens of culture that adults have already accepted as normal and expected. They rail against life being unfair; we’ve already noted that it is and moved on. They think love can conquer all. We wonder if love has the longevity and stamina to conquer the mundane wear-down of life. They think they’re the only ones with these particular problems in these particular times. We recognize the familiar struggle of youth and the pained attempts to figure out what where we belong.
Eleanor & Park transported me back to my teenager years viscerally. The novel dredged up a host of things that I keep trying to forget.
When a teenager, I wasn’t noticeable enough to be a misfit like Eleanor. Being noticed often spelled disaster; attempts at conformity helped me avoid the assholes who would haze you for not seeming “normal.” Mimicking what the girls around me wore was a vain attempt at pretending to be middle class. My clothes were never the right brands, at least that’s what the middle school home economics teacher wanted me to know. She droned on about the cheap quality of clothing from Walmart, Kmart, or JCPenney’s. Our parents, she implied with an unnaturally straight smile and more than a hint of condescension, should know better. When I wanted to dye my hair purple with Kool-Aid, my mother refused to let me. Good girls, I guess, didn’t have purple hair, and I was a good girl, who did what I was told and surpassed (most) expectations. I clung to my reputation as a “good girl” as if it were a shield could save me for malicious rumors and vindictive taunts.
I learned to be invisible. To take up less space. To keep my head down. If you couldn’t see me, you couldn’t hurt me. Or so I hoped.
Mostly, I didn’t have the energy for high school drama. I had to save it for familial drama. My parents divorced when I was three. For fifteen years, my week was divided into two homes and two sets of parents. Tuesday, Thursday, and every other weekend at my biological father’s house, and other days with my mom.
While other teens worried about romance, school, and extracurricular activities, I steeled myself for what Tuesday, Thursday, and every other weekend would bring. Would my father ignore me? Would he decide that I hated him and spend all of our time together telling me that I was just going to abandon him like my mother did? Would he love me and be on his best behavior? Would he buy me new clothes and books to purchase blind devotion? Would he rant about how I had to make a choice between my parents and that I wouldn’t choose him? Would he make me choose who I loved more right then? Would I spend the whole weekend reassuring him that I loved him? Would I sob when he tried to force me to choose? Would I promise to never leave him while counting down the years until I could escape at 18? Would I grow so angry that I goaded him to hit me because at least a punch would leave visible marks? Would I have nightmares for weeks about choosing him and never seeing my mother again? Would I dive deep into myself and find comfort in my dreams, hopes, and possible futures? Or would I get lost in books?
Books were my salvation. Their fictional worlds offered escape and soothed by ragged nerves. Books took me outside of my own head, away from the worry. But more than that, books didn’t care if I was awkward, vulnerable, emotional, damaged, or nerdy. Books didn’t judge. Books never asked questions about divorced parents and what life was like shifting from one home to another. Books didn’t need me to be pretty, smart, or composed. Books only needed attention and time, which I gladly offered up.
Eleanor & Park was not just a book that required my attention and time, but a pound of flesh. This book deserved a reader who could reckon with her own history and remain standing. This book required I understood what I managed to survive.
I understood Eleanor. I understood barbs, jabs, insults, and the threat of violence that never fully arrived. I understood a parent who wasn’t really a parent, which meant that you never got to be a child. I understood the burning desire to be “anywhere but here.” To escape. To run. To disentangle yourself from the shitshow that you inherited. To find a someplace else and never let it go.
I understood Eleanor, but I wasn’t her.
I feel her resonances though. I know what it is like to have a parent break your heart over and over and over. The fractures heal, but they stay fragile. They’ll break again and leave a network of scars. You’ll wonder if you’ll ever fully heal. You imagine yourself walking around wounded for the rest of your damn life. How can you recover from hurts that never seem to heal? What if you are too broken to live after you escape? What if you can’t love anyone because the love you’ve received is selfish, stingy, and weak? Most often, teenagers have real reasons to be melodramatic.
I wasn’t Eleanor because my mother and stepfather were my foundation. While my father never figured out how to love me without dire consequences for both of us, my mother loved me without conditions. She’s the reason my heart was never irreparably broken. She’s the reason I survived. Eleanor survived too with Park’s help.
I finished Eleanor & Park curious about what a grown-up Eleanor would look like.
I imagine her finishing high school with honors. Going to college. Falling in loving someone who sees her, truly sees her, wounds and all, and loves her more than she could imagine was possible. Getting married to this someone and holding him just tight enough to know he’s real. Maybe getting a job or going to graduate school. Having two kids, a girl and a boy. The girl is carbon copy of that someone: whip smart, confident, kind and funny. The boy is more like her, more cautious about the world, but when he smiles, the world never seems brighter. Maybe when she rocks the boy to sleep at night, she clings to him tightly to remind herself that this is real. She holds her daughter too long in a hug. Her children will never have to survive their childhoods quite like she did. That they won’t have to manage divided weeks or the corrosive worry about making a parent love you. She tells her kids that she loves them. The boy says, “I luf you.” The girl says, “I love you too, but you’ve already said that.” She says, “I know, but I love you.” She worries about her woundedness less as she gets older. Her heart feels like it is on the mend.
This is real, she tells herself. Her life is real, not one of those daydreams that never last. She found her somewhere else, and she’s never letting it go.