“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. (more…)