Book review: ‘Eleanor & Park’ by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkAh, first love.

Eleanor knows she’s in it . . . but not quite how to get out of it.

And she has to, right? She can’t go on investing feelings and interest and time in someone who will simply outgrow her. Lose interest in her. Move on, move forward, be done.

But Park is looking for something, too. Security, acceptance, understanding . . . a sense of belonging he can’t find as the only Asian kid in a small Nebraska town. Eleanor has her flaming-red hair, plus a strange dress code only she seems to follow; Park has his tan skin and lack of athletic ambition, which plagues his totalitarian father.

Forced together by a war for bus seats, Eleanor first gets to know Park simply through his choice of reading material: comic books. Time passes without the two ever speaking a word to one another, but once the dam breaks?

Well, there’s no stopping it.

Set in 1986, the magic of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is the sweetness and nostalgia it evokes — the quiet power of remembering that blush of first love when everything seemed possible, yet nothing was for certain. Anyone who has felt that terrifying rush of emotion, that hurtling from a cliff, will recognize themselves in our young couple.

It’s impossible not to remember our own first experience liking someone who actually likes you back.

For me, it was N. In my senior year of high school, I didn’t feel I could graduate without ever having had a real boyfriend (hand-holding doesn’t count) — and when I screwed up the courage to ask him to the prom, he popped my balloon faster than you can say “corsage.”

He said he’d think about it.

Think about it. Like I’d asked him for a pay-day loan.

I remember that moment like it was yesterday: plucking up the strength to approach him, this friend I’d been flirting with for months; waiting for a private moment to ask casually about the dance; somehow pulling the serious, terrified words from my throat. The awkward silence after I asked the question. The awful, horrible weekend that followed, waiting to see what his answer would be come Monday.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have waited for him to “think about it.” But, you know. I was 17, desperate for a date to prom — and truly interested in N., who shocked the heck out of me by returning to school looking shame-faced, saying of course he would go with me, and my God he was sorry for keeping me in suspense.

And that was it. Lightning bolt! He liked me back.

Eleanor goes through a similar transition, one wavering between disbelief and surprise and terror that someone like Park would actually be romantically intrigued by her. Because Eleanor? She’s complicated. From her odd clothes to wild locks to isolation from everyone save her messed-up family, she never imagines Park could ever feel for her . . . you know, like that. And Park? For as cute and smart and funny as he is, he’s so influenced by his rigid father that he can’t understand he’s fine — perfect, even — just the way he is.

I often found myself cringing for Eleanor, wanting so badly to help her avoid the devastating effects of her  stepfather or the mean-spirited kids at school. I really felt for this couple, cheering them on from the beginning, and their deep understanding and affection for one another means readers are drawn completely into their warm little cocoon. As the plot thickened, my heart was hammering as I considered they could never come out of this unscathed.

But does anyone?

Is that even possible?

Eleanor & Park was heartbreaking, realistic, uplifting, often hopeful. It was suspenseful, compelling throughout, and I found myself reading it with a vigor I haven’t felt in a while. Portions reminded me of Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts, one of my favorite young adult novels — and just like Zarr’s story, it’s not one I’ll soon forget.

4 out of 5!

Pub: Feb. 26, 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg