I wrote up the book review below a few days ago, before yesterday's horrifying incidents in Boston. I decided to keep it as is, despite how somber today feels, because there isn't much we need more when things like this happen than reminders of the love we can find in the world. From the people who raced into action when the bombs went off to one teen bringing light and life to another teen's world for the first time in a long time, love is out there, and it's beautiful. So, here's my review of Eleanor & Park.
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There are some books you race through because you can't wait to see how they end. There are other books that, as much as you want to see what happens next, you savor them slowly. You pace yourself, because you want to live with those characters as long as possible. Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park fell into that latter category for me. I didn't want it to end.
This is a gorgeously written book. It's a first-love story set in the 1980s about two teens who don't fit in and who find comfort and solace in each other. Eleanor is a big girl with unruly red hair and the wrong clothes. She just moved back to town after a year away, and stands out—for all the wrong reasons—from the moment she steps onto the school bus. She's got it rough at home, with a mean drunk of a stepfather who keeps her entire family walking on eggshells. She doesn't trust anyone. Park, meanwhile, is one of only a few Asian kids at school, a comic book nerd who loves music and takes taekwondo. He's not popular, but isn't picked on, either. Everything changes for both of them when Eleanor sits down next to Park on the school bus, and they strike up a tentative friendship that quickly grows into something more.
But that synopsis doesn't do justice to the beauty and simplicity and specificity of their relationship. This isn't a love story that could happen to any pair of teens—even any pair of misfit teens. This is Eleanor and Park's particular romance, 100% theirs and no one else's. And the way Rowell describes their attraction to each other is just so perfect, so singular. For instance, when Park and Eleanor are having their first private phone call, after only having talked on the bus and briefly at school, Eleanor is trying to describe why she likes Park. After fumbling for words out loud, she realizes:
She hadn't even said anything nice about him. She hadn't told him that he was prettier than any girl, and that his skin was like sunshine with a suntan. And that's exactly why she hadn't said it. Because all her feelings for him—hot and beautiful in her heart—turned to gobbledygook in her mouth.
Two pages later, she figures it out:
It's because you're kind.... And because you get all my jokes.... And you're smarter than I am.... And you look like a protagonist.... You look like the person who wins in the end. You're so pretty, and so good. You have magic eyes...and you make me feel like a cannibal.
Eleanor is completely genuine and completely herself. I haven't read anyone in YA literature who sounds and thinks like her, and those are just two examples from the text. I could quote line after line of description and dialogue, each adding more depth and soul to Eleanor. The same goes for Park.
The other thing that struck me about this book (okay, there are SO MANY things I loved, but this post will be epic if I don't narrow it down!) is how much significance is given to the early moments of their relationship. I haven't read a book in ages, if at all, in which holding hands is so monumental. And yet, as I read the scene in which Park holds Eleanor's hand for the first time, I could remember and feel exactly what they were feeling: the electricity between them, the slowing down of the rest of the world, the tingling of Eleanor's palm when Park lets go. From Park's perspective:
Holding Eleanor's hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.
For Eleanor, the moment of touch is like being disintegrated:
Like something had gone wrong beaming her onto the Starship Enterprise. If you've ever wondered what that feels like, it's a lot like melting—but more violent. Even in a million different pieces, Eleanor could still feel Park holding her hand. Could still feel his thumb exploring her palm. She sat completely still because she didn't have any other option. She tried to remember what kind of animals paralyzed their prey before they ate them.... Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her. That would be awesome.
The fact that holding hands is such an intense and nerve-wracking and incredible experience shows just how into each other Eleanor and Park are. Kissing, when it happens, is that much more amazing—but being together, talking, sitting side by side, and holding hands are just as important. And the fact that Park is there for Eleanor when her life feels like it's falling apart is bigger than any kiss. Their story is intimate and epic all at once, and Rowell juggles those extremes expertly.
I could keep typing up quotes, because this is that kind of book. I want to flip pages and relive the best moments and share them all with you. But instead of me doing that, I'll just say: Read Eleanor & Park. It's lovely and sweet and shy and scared and giddy and, in the end, both heartbreaking and hopeful.
I loved it.