I keep thinking I don’t like YA books anymore, and then I read another great YA book that reminds me why I haven’t completely let them go. A friend recommended and lent Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park to me in late November, and I’ll be honest: I put it off for a little while because the idea of a YA romance, especially after Attachments underwhelmed me, did not hold any sort of excitement. But I was interested in reading more of Rowell’s books and discovering what all the hype was about, so I (reluctantly) picked this one up. And didn’t put it down until I could barely keep my eyes open at 3 AM.
About the book: after being kicked out of her family’s house for a year, Eleanor’s life is uprooted as her mom moves the family into her new husband’s small home and switches Eleanor’s schools. At this new school, she is an outcast bullied by everyone except Park, who offers her a seat on the school bus on her first day, albeit rather rudely. Park is not mean to Eleanor like everyone else, but even while they’re sitting together he doesn’t speak to her. Eventually they realize they have comic books and music in common, but its a precarious situation even then–Park had been friends with some of the bullies, and Eleanor keeps her entire life outside of school absolutely secret. Her mean stepdad doesn’t want Park anywhere near her, and Park doesn’t want the bullies turning on him by hanging out with her anyway. Park is the only Korean kid in the neighborhood, and Eleanor’s family is so poor that she shares a room with four siblings and doesn’t own a toothbrush. Both of them know what teenage life is like on the outside, and somehow they find each other there, just in time for Eleanor’s stepdad to spiral out of control.
“Everything anybody ever said in this house was desperate. Desperate was white noise, as far as Eleanor was concerned–it was the hope that pulled at her heart with dirty little fingers.”
One of the things that sets this book apart is its 1980’s setting. Other than the music and technology references, though, there’s not a lot of detail with the possibility of alienating readers who want the book to relate to their own situation in current years; just enough difference in the culture to set it apart without driving away YA readers who weren’t alive yet in 1986. The music and comic references, the models of cars and the use of walkmans lend extra flavor to the setting, and it’s certainly a delicious flavor.
Another aspect that sets this book apart is the uniqueness of the main characters. Even outcasts in YA books have become rather stereotypical lately, but Eleanor and Park are distinct. I had a little trouble understanding Park sometimes, because he seemed right on the edge between outcast and popular; it looked like he had the ability to choose which world he lived in, and even after he decided to stand apart, he was always quickly forgiven for his gutsy, unpopular moves while every action of Eleanor’s further cemented her as “other.” I did, however, appreciate that Park’s parents were present and caring, that they set rules and made allowances and grounded him when they thought he was getting into trouble. There aren’t a lot of times in YA that we see a complete and stable family with loving parents, and it contrasted strongly with Eleanor’s sad home life. Eleanor herself, on the other hand, is the sort of character a reader can sympathize with even while having nothing in common with her. She’s kind and patient, and takes the crap life deals her with her head high until she sees a way out.
But the best part of the book, of course, is seeing Eleanor and Park together. They’re so different it seems like they shouldn’t work, but of course they do. Even if most of their conversations lead to arguing, even if Eleanor won’t talk, and Park says too much, they always seem to find the perfect middle ground and communicate like they can’t with anyone else. Isn’t that the dream–to be yourself and be accepted?
“But it’s up to us…” he said softly. “It’s up to us not to lose this.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. The best books are the ones that surprise you, and this one definitely came as a surprise. I was afraid it would be predictable–even the title sounds predictable here–but there’s more to the story. There’s romance, of course, but it’s not about the romance. It’s about finding your way, and helping someone who needs a hand, and realizing you’ve found a friend where you least expected it.
- Burned by Ellen Hopkins is a great YA book full of love and tragedy, written in verse. Patton’s dad is an alcoholic and a tyrant, and when he catches her with a boyfriend she’s not allowed to see, Patton is shipped off to her aunt’s ranch as punishment. Instead, she realizes how badly her life was going and makes a new friend on the ranch, a boy who shows her what she’s been missing, just in time for her dad to come back and punish her again. This is a unique story presented in a unique format, and it’s one of my all-time favorites.
- Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen also springs to mind, especially because it also deals with difficult topics faced by a couple of teens who grow together while sharing music. This one also explores the ramifications of speaking out against the people who hurt you and of keeping silent and letting it tear you apart instead.
- If you want something a little more adult, Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us is a new romance that hits points like abuse and homelessness, and weighs those factors against love. This is a great example of literature that shows love isn’t a cure-all, and that there are some things it can’t overcome.
Coming up next: I’ve finished reading Ethan Frome, which is my classic of the month, and I’ve also finished reading an adult romance novel my mom recommended, Vows by LaVyrle Spencer. Both of these are set around the end of the 19th century and feature love and tragedy. I won’t be reviewing either of these in separate posts, so you can find my thoughts on these books in my upcoming wrap-up. My next review post will focus on Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, her first published book and the first book in the Shadowhunter marathon I’m embarking upon. It’s been so much fun being reunited with Simon, Clary, Jace, and the Lightwoods that I can’t stop reading–expect a review later this week!
The Literary Elephant