Sometimes words fail me. They feel inadequate to describe a hauntingly beautiful painting or how a passage of poetry moved me to tears or the way a piece of music captures a feeling of love or loss. Trying to describe how wonderful Eleanor & Park makes me feel that same impotence, searching and struggling for the right words. In a word, Eleanor & Park is unforgettable.
Though it is a story of first love with all the insecurities, the hope, the fluttery feelings in the stomach, the pain, E&P goes much deeper than that. It is also a terrific book for young adults to read about fitting in and finding a way to cope with feelings of isolation. It is romantic, it is funny, and it is one of the best books I have ever read.
Eleanor and Park's story spans across the course of one school year beginning in August 1986. Their first meeting is about as unromantic as it can get not only because it's on a school bus but also because it borders on antagonistic. Eleanor is the new girl riding the bus to school and no one wants her to sit beside them. She could never blend in or appear invisible which is what Park is trying to do. He knows the bus demons very well and his strategy of flying low below the radar is a sound one. So how can he do that if this "big awkward" girl with wild red hair plunks down next to him? Reluctantly he lets her sit by him and promptly ignores her all while trying to figure out how to switch seats with someone else. Eleanor is no fool. She is very much aware Park allows her to sit there on sufferance. For days they do not talk or look at each other. There is a full six inches of space between them at all times.
So how do these two build a bridge to span that great chasm of six inches.? At first it's Park's comic books. Eleanor begins to surreptitiously read over Park's shoulder. Eventually Park realizes what is happening and he paces himself turning pages to accommodate her. Park becomes fascinated and intrigued by Eleanor and vice versa. Over time they do begin to talk about music, comic books, and swap jokes. I loved this part of the book, that slow and gradually deepening relationship. The first time they touch was sensual and yet so innocent:
"He didn't look up. He wound the scarf around his fingers until her hand was hanging in the space between them. Then he slid the silk and his fingers into her open palm".
Eleanor is not attractive. At various times she is described as a "scarecrow", as resembling a "trouble doll", a "gypsy hobo", and a "sad hobo clown". Part of this is because she is "fat" (her word choice), she has lots of freckles, and she wears old, secondhand mismatched clothes with odd bits of fabric and ribbon to cover up holes and tears. She pins her bra together. Various nicknames are bestowed on her but the one that sticks is "Big Red". In addition to her odd physical appearance, she is awkward in crowds and around strangers. Winning friends is not her strong suit.
Beneath the surface, however, Eleanor is smart, sharp, brave, funny, a bit sarcastic, and even, surprisingly, a bit hopeful. That comes out as she constantly strives to make the best out of bad situations. Despite her truly nightmarish home life, her cruel depraved stepfather, a biological father that cares more for himself than his children, and a beaten down mother, Eleanor still has hope. She can't afford batteries for her Walkman or shampoo or even a toothbrush, but she writes bands, songs, and other "interesting stuff" on her books because she'd like to hear them someday. This is her wish list.
Park is also a misfit. He is half Korean and resembles his mother in coloring except for his green eyes. He not only has to deal with a bit of stereotypical prejudices because of his Asian heritage at school, but his relationship with his father is strained due to Park's disinterest in hunting, football, and driving a stick shift. Park is into alternative music like XTC, the Smiths, Skinny Puppy, and the Misfits. He loves/obsesses over comics like the Watchmen and X Men. Eleanor compares his home and family to the Cleavers and the Waltons. On the surface it appears Park has a perfect family and though it is very clear Park's dad loves him, it is also equally clear his father doesn't understand his oldest son who "cried when he took him pheasant hunting", or why it is nearly impossible to teach Park to drive a stick when he taught his youngest son, Josh, to drive in two weeks. Mr. Sheridan is a good father, however, who clearly loves his family. Park's home is not a battlefield like Eleanor's.
Park and Eleanor's first meeting, their first touch, that first kiss, and their first breakup is expertly detailed in alternating POVs. Being able to witness Park's shy advances and Eleanor's tentative responses just made me love these two more. I cheered them, I cried when they argued, and I laughed at their jokes both public and private. I loved how the things that made Park and Eleanor different, misfits, were also the things that looked completely wonderful through each other's eyes. To Eleanor, Park has "magic eyes", And to Park, Eleanor's freckled body becomes "candy sprinkled."
Throughout Eleanor &Park there is an almost perfect balance of lightness and darkness, brightness and shadow, clarity and cloudiness. Artists like Vermeer in "Girl With A Pearl Earring" deftly used light and shadow called chiaroscuro to paint vivid, vibrant portraits. Ms. Rowell uses that same technique, crafting a clear, striking, intensely realistic picture of first love between Eleanor and Park. To contrast the darkness of Eleanor's home, there is Park's home, a temporary sanctuary for Eleanor from the dingy, cramped, prison of Richie's house. Eleanor is freed to share opinions, jokes, and music with Park on the bus, but at Richie's house, she is restricted, confined, forced to be as invisible as possible. She admits that she "practiced being in a room without leaving any clues that she's been there." Another example is the joy Eleanor experiences at the mementos in her keepsake box but then there's the dirty, ugly things written on her school books and the destruction of that box and everything in it.
Even the ending is a blend of despair mitigated with a touch of hope. Eleanor & Park is not light and fluffy. You won't see any cute, blonde cheerleaders paired up with football heroes or tattooed bad boys in this book. What you will get is a book filled to the brim with a rich storytelling about wonderfully complex characters who meet, fall in love, and try to hold on to those feelings despite huge obstacles. Parts of Eleanor, and even Park, resonate deeply within me, and this is a book that stays with me long after I finished reading the last page.