I remember being 16. Waking up early to take a drama class I hated. Eating lunch with friends. Longingly looking at a boy I liked in art class, although we would never be more than friends. The beautifully crafted story of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, is just like the story of myself and other 16 year olds. It’s a story of being young and in love, but that is where the differences stop.
Eleanor and Park are two misfits living in a world where their circumstances have pulled them together and ultimately, pulls them apart. Their love story begins as many real life love stories do, on a bus ride. It’s 1986 and Eleanor, with her unruly red curly hair, body “of a medieval bar maid,” and quirky sense of fashion (i.e.: tons of ties), is new to Omaha and sits down in the only empty seat, right next to Park Sheridan. He is not particularly happy about this. Park is a half-Korean kid in a town where falling into an ambiguous space of being neither white nor black is problematic. He wears black and listens to New Wave and punk rock, in a place where neither is particularly popular. He’s a social outcast and could care less. Give him his music and comic books and he’s content.
They are thrown together on the bus that first day of school and nothing is the same after that.
Eleanor’s circumstances, her past, her poverty, her mother’s abuse have created a girl hardened by her experiences. She’s stoic and strong because she has to be. She doesn’t know what the future holds and attempts to live life one day at a time. It’s a terrible way to live and she’s terribly unhappy, but she continues to persevere although there are times when she just wants to stop; stop running so the things she’s running from can catch up to her. Park on the other hand is her polar opposite. He has friends that he can hang out with. He has ways of keeping himself entertained, he has parents who love each other and are not afraid to show it. He has familial love in his life. He has material things that have created a semblance of happiness, but do not take the place of human connection.
And yes, it’s inevitable, but they fall in love. A deep, heart wrenching, stomach churning, nerve ending, electrical love. A love that I honestly want to experience despite how utterly scary it is. Their love saved each other. It gave them happiness when the world around them was slowly collapsing. It gave them something to look forward to when the day ended and the next one began.
They fall in love over Joy Division and U2, Watchmen and X-Men. They fall in love when they don’t have anytime alone, making the most of those precious moments. The fall in love with their whole beings.
Rowell’s prose is so simple and yet beautiful. She talks about race and being an outsider with such honestly and aplomb. It is refreshing. She captures the emotions of teenagers in love perfectly, with the right amount of apprehension, fear and ultimately, joy. Her words manage to make the most innocent of touches something more, something complete, beautiful, and earth shattering.
“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
Or this one. “Besides they just didn’t hold hands. Park touched her lands like they were something rare and precious, like her fingers were intimately connected to the rest of her body, which, of course they were. It was hard to explain. He made her feel like more than the sum of her parts.”
It’s a glorious novel, one that may be bit too sappy for those of us that are less emotionally compromised (I cried, a lot). But this novel touched me on some intrinsic level. I understood Eleanor because she is me in some way. She’s afraid to love because she knows that it will be taken away, as most first loves are. She’s stoic because she’s vulnerable, putting on a brave face because she doesn’t want anyone to know that she is literally breaking at the seams. But she throws caution to the wind because she learns to love and trust Park and dammit, he loves her completely; quirkiness, flaws and all that lies between.
Park is my ultimate male protagonist. (Eleanor even says he looks like one.) He’s a male character that is not afraid of his emotions. He initiates their proclamations of love, not because he wants anything from her, but because he wants her to now how he feels. And he’s 16 years old. Teenagers may be filled with uncontrollable hormones, but Park is emotionally secure, shying away from the physical stuff because he honestly forgot about it. You’ll understand what I mean when you read it. He’s in love and not afraid to show it.
I want to have a love like theirs, one for the ages, a love that makes you forget about all the negativities of your life, a love that you look back on and cherish. And maybe that is the only type of love a 16 year old can give, a complete love, because they are young and don’t know any better. But perhaps getting older and falling in love is not about knowing any better. Maybe it’s about giving yourself to someone as completely as you did when you were 16 , but not allowing circumstances that tore you apart, circumstances that you couldn’t change, to affect you now.
Eleanor & Park is a love story for those of us who have loved and lost, those of us that have yet to love, and those of us that want to love, but are afraid to. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.