Eleanor and Park (Orion, 2012) is one of those books I kept seeing on YA must-read lists, and it took me forever to get around to reading it. I kept picking it up in bookshops, reading the blurb and putting it back. As a general rule, I like my romance tortured and Gothic or not at all. I’m also well and truly over the cutesy, self-consciously ‘quirky’ 500 Days of Summer knock-offs. So a love story titled Eleanor and Park by someone named Rainbow didn’t have immediate appeal.
I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge.
As the title suggests, Eleanor and Park is the story of Eleanor and Park—two teenagers who meet on the school bus in 1986. Yes, it’s a love story, but it isn’t the love story I was expecting. There’s no superfluous quirk factor and not a manic pixie dream girl in sight (although there is mention of The Smiths). Eleanor has just moved back home after her stepfather kicked her out a year previously. She covers the worn patches in her clothes with scraps of pinned on cloth, shares a room with her four siblings and doesn’t know what to do about her violent stepfather’s behaviour towards her mother. At school, she wants nothing more than to blend in, but being a big girl with an unruly head of red curls and a necessarily odd wardrobe, she’s not having much luck. Park is the only Asian, well half-Asian, at their mostly black school. Like Eleanor, he wants to fly under the radar, and enjoys a great deal more success in this than Eleanor, at least until he falls for her.
Eleanor and Park’s relationship grows slowly. From unwillingly sharing a seat on the bus, to swapping comic books and mix tapes to the trill of holding hands and kissing for the first time, their is, in many ways, a well-worn story of first love: fumbling and awkward and beautiful. There are many moments when I caught myself smiling and thinking: I remember that feeling! And later, with a little stab to the heart: I remember that too. Rowell has a real gift for recapturing that sense of discovery unique to first love and first loss—the unlocking of joy, desire and hurt previously unknown. But it’s also the story of a love unique to Eleanor and Park, fraught with challenges many of us will hopefully never face.
What I admired most about Eleanor and Park was that, unlike many teen romances, it presents love in the context of a bigger picture. Eleanor and Park’s relationship is not epic, and, as much as they would like it to be, it’s not going to magic away all their problems. It may not even last. The idea that we need to love ourselves before we can love someone else, and that when we love someone we have to let them go, can be a hard to swallow, especially when we’re young and love seems like the answer.
In a time when many of the really popular YA books are feature characters out to save this and other worlds, and where the epic and the sensational rule, Eleanor and Park stands out for its realness. It’s a touching read, without being overly mooshy, and I’m not ashamed to say that it left me rather less skeptical of love stories than I have been for some time.