“XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus.
“Park pressed his headphones into his ears.
“Tomorrow he was going to bring Skinny Puppy or the Misfits. Or maybe he’d make a special bus tape with as much screaming and wailing on it as possible.
“He could get back to New Wave in November, after he got his driver’s license. His parents had already said Park could have his mom’s Impala, and he’d been saving up for a new tape deck. Once he started driving to school, he could listen to whatever he wanted or nothing at all, and he’d get to sleep in an extra twenty minutes.”
Bono met his wife in high school, Park says. So did Jerry Lee Lewis, Eleanor answers.I’m not kidding, he says.You should be, she says, we’re 16.What about Romeo and Juliet?Shallow, confused, then dead.I love you, Park says.Wherefore art thou, Eleanor answers.I’m not kidding, he says.You should be.
Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love—and just how hard it pulled you under.
Comments: This year’s top contender for “Book Most Embraced by Adults Who Read YA” may be Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, stepping into the spot occupied by John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in 2012, although with less terminal illness and more 1980s references. I don’t read a lot of YA, but when my fellow grown-ups heap praise on books like they have on these, I almost always have to see for myself. I decided to get this one in audio instead of print a few months ago when I saw that one of the narrators was Rebecca Lowman, who’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. When I started hearing about the controversy over the book’s themes and language that was causing it to be challenged in one Minnesota school district, I knew what I’d be reading for Banned Books Week.
When I read with that particular agenda, I try to hold the reasons for the controversy in mind as I take in the story. As I understand it, a parents’ group protested the author’s publicly-funded seminar with students because of Eleanor and Park’s “raunchy and vulgar” language and “age-inappropriate” material. I can’t say they’re wrong about the presence of the language–but it’s in context and in character for these characters and the situations they’re in, and I never found it excessive or unnecessary. “Age-appropriateness” is a more nebulous concept, but I’d guess that the likely reading audience for Eleanor and Park is in the same range as its lead characters–that is, high school–or older. If that’s the case, I’m inclined to see this novel as unquestionably “appropriate.”
Rowell switches the novel’s third-person narration between Eleanor and Park at frequent and sometimes unexpected intervals, allowing the reader into both sides of their story, and it works. The semi-misfit half-Asian boy and very-misfit red-haired new girl are both surprised as what begins with the shared reading of comic books and exchange of mix tapes on the school bus develops into something else. Park’s feelings for Eleanor grow out of an inclination to protect her, while as Eleanor’s attachment to Park deepens, she is increasingly determined to protect him from the truth about her family.
I appreciated so many of the things Rowell gets right with this novel. Although I’m a little uncertain of the chronological accuracy of some of the details, the mid-1980s timeframe is effectively established, and Eleanor and Park’s lower-middle-class neighborhood is rendered as a real place, populated by real people. It’s the reality that’s the most striking thing–this pre-Internet, before-cell-phones teen romance feels timeless because Rowell’s characters are emotionally authentic and honestly human, imperfections and all. It frustrated me when Eleanor’s insecurities overwhelmed her and got in the way of her being wholly herself with Park, and when Park seemed to be interacting with his image of Eleanor and not the real girl, but it was frustrating because it was what people really do–especially when they’re sixteen-year-old people who are still learning who they are.
I’ll add to the praise chorus for Eleanor and Park, but I confess I didn’t love it quite the way I thought I might. I think I expected to be more charmed by it, and less confronted by grittiness and wrenching emotions…but with that said, I think those reactions may make it resonate more for me in the long term. The alternating narration of Rebecca Lowman (Eleanor) and Sunil Malhotra (Park) in the audiobook version is effective and affecting–although I was occasionally bothered by the tentative, breathy speaking voice that Malhotra gave to Eleanor when he was voicing her dialogue in a “Park” section–and kept my ears glued to the story. This novel deserves a wide readership–and if it takes a controversy to make some people discover it, maybe that’s not so bad.