It was never my intention to review this book. Eleanor & Park was going to be my ‘in-between’ book, you know – the one that you read to recover from the last book you read. It’s been a long time since I read a book for sheer pleasure. As far as I knew, this particular one was a YA ‘romance’ that had gotten a number of great reviews. It was something I could relax with. So for the first time, I didn’t take notes, I didn’t highlight and I didn’t think about angles for a book review. I just read.
I got lost in it. It was refreshing to be reading again for the joy of it. And I looked forward to it. It wasn’t a challenge in terms of its language or concept, but that didn’t make it any less worthwhile, and I was actually disappointed when it ended.
Eleanor & Park follows its two main characters throughout a school year, changing from one perspective to another. Eleanor, a dishevelled red head with odd clothes, sits next to Park, a Korean boy with a love for comics, on the bus on her first day of school. Their story moves from dislike and pity, to curiosity and love over the next few weeks and months. Eleanor & Park was sweet and tender, with just enough darker drama for it to steer clear of being sappy and dull.
However, the novel left me contemplating first love, which is something that I don’t often think of anymore. First love is one of those universal experiences; something we all go through at some point, meaning we can all relate to what the characters go through, and reflect upon our own experiences.
While the novel touched on the harsh realities of school bullying, spousal abuse and financial struggle, it was the ‘purity’ of the love between Eleanor and Park that caused my contemplative state… The majority of the drama that unfolded lay outside of their relationship, though it did have an impact on it – Eleanor’s family situation was less-than-desirable and it affected her ability to let Park in. However, the relationship between the two characters themselves was almost perfect – the only ‘new couple’ argument they really had involved Eleanor getting ‘ex-girlfriend closure’.
For two sixteen year olds, their relationship was very black and white. Isn’t first love, especially in the teen years, conflicted by ideas and expectations of sex? Usually, it’s an unbalanced, painstakingly awkward and blind love, as opposed to the mature, equality-driven relationship between Eleanor and Park. I found it hard to believe that both Eleanor and Park were unflinchingly selfless, and put each other before themselves and their longstanding friends. I also found it hard to believe that they had exactly the same boundaries and desires when it came to sex.
Perhaps all of this is part of the hopeful message the novel embodies. Rowell has spoken about the ugly situations out there, and how she wanted her characters to overcome them. She’s also gone out of her way to break the stereotypical ‘love story’ characters, with unconventional leads like Eleanor, the bigger girl with red hair who gets bullied at school, and Park – the Korean boy who likes wearing eyeliner and reading comics.
Despite my misgivings, it’s hard not to love this book. With simple, unpretentious language Rowell developed a tender story that was an unexpected breath of fresh air, in what can sometimes be a heavy time to be a reader.