I picked up Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell on a recent trip to the library because the cover looked familiar and I needed an audiobook for last month’s readathon. When I posted my readathon stack, Jenny responded by saying:
“Eleanor and Park is amazing and you are living a half-life until you have read it. (I am exaggerating but not, like, THAT much.)”
So I figured I’d chosen well!
About the Book:
Park hates riding the school bus. He’d be driving himself to school by now if only his dad wasn’t forcing him to learn to drive a stick shift before he can get his license. He loses himself in comic books and homemade mix tapes every day in an attempt to drown out the obnoxious kids — many of whom Park grew up with — who sit at the back of the bus.
Then one day, a new girl gets on the bus. She has wild red hair, is overweight, and has a sense of fashion that pretty much kills any chance of her first day going well. The seats were all claimed on the first day of school, and no one who snagged a seat to themselves — Park included — is willing to take the social hit that inviting the new girl to sit with them would cause. But she stands there for so long, so awkwardly, that Park caves. The new girl slides into his seat. And nothing will ever be the same for either of them.
I’ll start by warning that if you know nothing about the book at all, and you don’t care to, this review may by necessity get a little spoiler-y. Continue at your own risk!
Jenny didn’t lie. Eleanor & Park is an excellent book. It’s told in alternating limited third-person voices, sometimes from Eleanor’s perspective and sometimes from Park’s. That approach works really well in this case, since it has the dual effect of zooming the story in tight on the two title characters and making sure all the important events get covered by an eyewitness. The book feels like a cozy little bubble, like you’re firmly ensconced in the sphere of Park and Eleanor’s relationship, a fly on the wall. At the same time, you also get to experience the stuff that happens when they’re not together. The flow between the two just works.
Park and Eleanor are so remarkably real. Rowell must have taken notes when she was a teenager, because the things her characters say and do and think and feel are so vivid and ring so true. They are people you know like your own best friend by the time the novel is over. Their relationship, too, develops in such a natural and lovely way that you can’t help but smile along. The fragility and awkwardness are endearingly real.
The other characters take on a satisfying amount of personality and life through Park and Eleanor’s eyes, too, providing the book with a strong supporting cast. I think Park’s mom might have been my favorite. That, or Eleanor’s two gym class friends. Together the secondary characters provide a realistic context for the centerpiece of Eleanor and Park.
There are some tough parts of the book. Eleanor’s home life is far from ideal; it often borders on dangerous. She doesn’t have an easy time of it at school, either, where her outcast status continues to draw malice from many of the other kids. I thought Rowell dealt with both very skillfully, neither holding back nor gratuitously inserting incidents that added nothing to the story. The hard things were an important aspect of the story, but I don’t think they were the point.
The audiobook was perfect. Readers Rebecca Lowman (who read Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, which I adored) and Sunil Malhotra were fantastic as Eleanor and Park, respectively. And having the two characters’ sections actually read by two different people brought the story to life in a way I don’t think could have been achieved quite so well in print or with a single narrator.
I was not a hundred percent satisfied with the ending, which was my only complaint. I don’t know what I expected. I actually spent most of the book terrified that something awful was going to happen at any moment, so I should have been relieved. I guess I needed to know that Eleanor and Park were going to be ok, and I didn’t quite get enough reassurance. Still, it could have ended much worse. It’s a tiny, minor quibble compared to how much I enjoyed the book as a whole.
The Verdict: Excellent
I’m sold. Thanks, Jenny! I’m also curious now to read more from Rainbow Rowell. If Eleanor & Park is a good representation of her work, I know I’ll like the others.
What books have you read that brought a particular age or experience vividly to life?