Park is the boy at the back of the bus. Black T-shirts, headphones, head in a book – he thinks he’s made himself invisible. But not to Eleanor… never to Eleanor.
Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall for each other. They fall in love the way you do the first time, when you’re young, and you feel as if you have nothing and everything to lose.
For the last twelve months or so everywhere I’ve looked I’ve seen people raving about Rainbow Rowell’s books. Well actually, I’ve seen as many people raving about how awesome Rainbow herself is as I’ve seen discussion about her books. Either way I knew I needed to finally get on and read her books. Eleanor and Park seemed like the perfect place to start. Now I’ve read it and loved it I find myself wishing my reviewing skills were better, this book deserves a far better write up than I have any hope of producing.
Eleanor and Park is set in 1986, and is told jointly by the characters named in the title. The setting was an interesting one, I was a young child in the UK during 1986 but much of the nostalgia that the time period evoked worked well for me. Whether it would work quite so well for today’s teen I don’t know, but I always managed fine with books set many decades in the past so I reckon it probably will.
Both Eleanor and Park have significant challenges within their lives. Eleanor’s are more obvious, living in poverty with an abusive stepfather and a mother who doesn’t seem able to provide the comfort or support Eleanor so desperately wants and needs, transferring to a new school . Park on the other hand has to manage a father whose expectations seem unreachable, and his own desire to simply get on with life and remain beneath the radar. The dual narrative, third person structure of the book means we really get to see inside the two characters’ heads – we get to understand how they feel, what they want, what they’re struggling with. I felt that this meant I could connect more deeply with them as characters.
This is definitely a love story, though I haven’t read many like it before. It’s slow and tentative and awkward, like so many real life burgeoning teen romances. Neither Eleanor or Park fit into the quintessential romantic lead pigeon holes and the book is all the better for it. The uncertainty that underpins their relationship again draws the reader further into it, and I’m sure will be something that many readers find they can identify with. So many love stories play out more like the Hollywood romance and whilst these occur in real life they’re not the only sort of romance and I really appreciated the authenticity of relationship found within this book. The Hollywood take on this story would also result in some neat, saccharine sweet ending. What we get is so much better, an untidy ending of hope and progress.
I loved the role both comics and music played within this book. The mix tapes element of the book was something I particularly found I identified with, whilst personal CD players were a feature of my teenage years mix tapes were still somewhat important – I still have a box which contains a few that meant most to me for one reason or another. Their differing circumstances means there is something of an inequity in the relationship between Eleanor and Park, her life has meant that in many ways she hasn’t experienced many of the cultural things that Park has. Music however is something she knows even if what she knows is different to what Park knows. He might know the stuff that’s current but she knows the greats that have come before. She is able to teach him in the way he is able to teach her – this is the power of music and something that moved me greatly as I read.
This book is hard to describe neatly. It’s quiet and yet huge, its story is simple and yet multi-faceted. Fundamentally this is a book that will claw its way under your skin, dragging you into its characters’ lives, staying front and centre in your brain even once you’ve finished reading. I absolutely loved it and am already looking forward to revisiting it.
Eleanor and Park is published by Orion in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.