Eleanor & Park is, in a word, delightful. Other adjectives that I’d use to describe it include charming, sweet, heartfelt, moving, emotionally satisfying, and adorable. I read it in less than a day and was enraptured the entire time, and I want everyone to go out and read this book, right now. Go!
I was predisposed to like this novel because I read and loved Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, another sweet, moving, funny love story. And actually, I think Eleanor & Park is even better than Attachments; it packs a big emotional wallop with a great payoff. After reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which left me feeling down in the dumps and emotionally manipulated, Eleanor & Park is a breath of fresh air. It’s not all saccharine-sweet happiness — there are some serious emotional ups and downs — but the ending feels true and real and right, and I loved it.
The story is about two teenagers — the aforementioned Eleanor and Park — who live in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s. The narrative switches between Eleanor and Park throughout the book. These two kids each have struggles fitting in: Park, who’s half-Korean, is one of the only Asians in his entire school — perhaps the entire state — and Eleanor, the new girl in town, is chubby and awkward, with crazy red hair, and comes from a rough family situation, with an abusive stepfather, absent father, and weak mother. Eleanor and Park make an unlikely pair, but, surprising everyone (including themselves), they fall in love. They ride the bus to school together, and after a rocky start, become friends, and then something more. They bond over comic books, music, jokes, and their shared sense of isolation — real or imagined — at their high school and within their own families. The description of the torturous process by which Eleanor and Park fall in love is so sweet, so tender, so pure, that it almost made me cry several times. But the real tears started when Eleanor and Park face a seemingly insurmountable challenge to their relationship, and have to figure out a solution. The last ten percent of this book (I read it on my Kindle) nearly had me in tears the entire time, which was not ideal, since I was reading it while sitting on a stationary bike at the gym. Fighting off tears did provide a cardio challenge, though!
I want to share just a few of the many snippets in the book that I had to highlight as I was reading. These passages spoke to me even though I was never in love as a teenager: the story of Eleanor and Park transcends the fact that they are teens, in the 1980s, in Omaha. There’s some universal stuff in here. I mean, Rowell’s descriptions of what it feels like to be in love are just dead-on. Some of my favorite little bits follow:
“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
“He put his pen in his pocket, then took her hand and held it to his chest for a minute. It was the nicest thing she could imagine. It made her want to have his babies and give him both of her kidneys.”
“They walked down every street of the market area, and then across the street, into a park. Eleanor didn’t even know all this existed. She hadn’t realized Omaha could be such a nice place to live. (In her head, this was Park’s doing, too. The world rebuilt itself into a better place around him.)”
“You think that holding someone hard will bring them closer. You think that you can hold them so hard that you’ll still feel them, embossed on you, when you pull away. Every time Eleanor pulled away from Park, she felt the gasping loss of him.”
Oh, God. I’m tearing up just transcribing these quotes! Apart from completely nailing the feeling of being in love, especially new love, Rowell does a great job describing some of the conflicts that arise in this particular high school relationship, particularly around the universal teenage desire to be well-liked (or, at least, not picked on) and the urge to be loyal to one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Park doesn’t get picked on because, for one thing, he grew up in the area and is good looking (even though he’s not necessarily “cool”) but Eleanor, on the other hand, is a walking target for bullies. Thus, Park has to wrestle with his loyalty to Eleanor and his own desire to fly under the radar and avoid being bullied himself. (Hint: he makes the right choice in the end).
“God, she had adorable cheeks. Dimples on top of freckles, which shouldn’t even be allowed, and round as crabapples. It was kind of amazing that more people didn’t try to pinch her cheeks. His grandma was definitely going to pinch her when they met. But Park hadn’t thought that either, the first time he saw Eleanor on the bus. He remembered thinking that it was bad enough that she looked the way she did… Did she have to dress like that? And act like that? Did she have to try so hard to be different? 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.”
The relationship that develops between Eleanor and Park is nuanced and delicate, but also deep and strong. It’s a joy to behold. So if you want an emotionally rewarding, well-written, and utterly sweet novel to take your mind off your troubles, please please please go pick up Eleanor & Park.
(And here’s another glowing review by the New York Times, in case you’re still not convinced).