The Short Version: Park is a quiet kid who likes The Smiths and punk – while Eleanor’s red hair and curves make her stand out at the worst possible moment: high school. They’re an odd couple, to be sure, but a couple they become – first friends and then inseparably in love. But struggles at their respective homes make this love affair possibly even more doomed than your typical high school romance…
The Review: So last year, to much hubbub, The Fault in Our Stars sort of pushed the “grown-up” crowd back into Young Adult fiction. It was well-reviewed, it nearly won the Tournament of Books, and it was the it book of 2013. And it deserved that praise – but, at the end of the day, it doesn’t quite fit into the canon of classic kid’s lit/young adult lit. There is something a little too grown-up about it – which makes Eleanor & Park a more curious novel to grapple with under grown-up context, because it does very much fit into the mold of a classic kid’s novel.
Nearly the entire time I was reading this book, I was thinking of Bridge to Terabithia. The books are admittedly very different and perhaps the comparison out of the gate sets up certain expectations for what will happen – but Eleanor & Park felt like a book that I might’ve been given to read in middle school. The sort of book that gets challenged for some of its subject material but that’s really only because some kid who reads it might find their life changed, not because the subject material is actually unsuited for teens.
For one thing, the message of love being weird and wacky and unexpected is a great one. Eleanor has a crazy mane of red hair, she has an outrageously unique sense of style, and she’s a bit bigger than the girls at her school – and we all remember, in one way or another, what “standing out” in high school can mean. Similarly, Park longs to unleash his inner mope – he’s not goth, but he wears black and listens to The Smiths and maybe puts on some guyliner. The sequence of events that comprises their courtship is adorable, funny, and spot-on: we’ve all fallen for someone we didn’t expect and that changes us. And Ms. Rowell nails it, in terms of the weird inability to really communicate in those early days of love. You’re so into each other, your brain hasn’t actually caught up to what your heart (and your body) are telling you. There’s an inarticulacy that Rowell catches here, often by use of a frustrated oath inside one character or the other’s head after they (or the other) have done something awkward. The flipping between points of view helps too – because the frustrations are silly, for sure. They’re ridiculous things and an adult reading this book wants to say “UGH, NO, COME ON, BE BETTER!” but you realize that you can’t because you have to go through all this first. But I was right there with Park, heart in my throat and palms a-shaking – girls are wonderful and scary all wrapped up together and they were even scarier when you realized that they might like you back.
But much as the book accurately captures that whole “first flush of love” thing, for the high school freshman/sophomore set (the oft-associated TFiOS is for the crucially different junior/senior set), the important thing in this book is the background for both families. That’s what might get this book banned and that’s what makes the book so much more powerful than the books it sits on the shelves with. See, Eleanor’s family is… pretty screwed up. Her step-dad kicked her out of the house. For a year. She stayed with friends of her mom and has only just come back – to a smaller house, where her younger siblings have betrayed her and accepted their new (violent, drunk, loutish) father. The difficulties she faces at home are the sort that can be hard to express or reveal for a young kid, who’s already facing enough stress at school, and the encouragement to talk to someone about these things is reason alone to recommend this book to kids. But the thing that doesn’t recommend it, at the same time, is the particular way in which the story is resolved.
If you couldn’t guess, that means SPOILERS are happening below.
So Eleanor, faced with the realization that it’s her step-father who has been subtly harassing her and looking for another opportunity to kick her out, runs away. To her relatives in I believe Minnesota. Which is all fine and good – they welcome her in and her having a loving home is an important thing. But the way it’s handled, with Park driving her up there and no adults getting involved is a little too… well, it’s a little too fictional for a book that was so good at capturing real life. There’s no way in hell that a sensible parent like Park’s dad would let him drive her up there and back alone just after he got his license. Right? I’m not just making that up?
There’s certainly a noble, movie-ready quality to that ending – but it feels like another Romeo & Juliet issue – a play, I should note, that takes its licks at the hands of Ms. Rowell in this novel. Rightly so, they’re children and by necessity kind of idiotic – but thus so are Eleanor & Park by extension. Hell, I even just noticed the echoed titles: there’s a sense of star-crossing here and there’s an aspect of it that feels a little too forced. The authorial hand can be seen, whereas addressing the situation via the counselors and really showing what it would be like for a young kid to seek help (or even if she’d run away on her own) would’ve supported the more realistic rest of the book instead of providing a sweet, heart-breaking ending for our young lovers.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Rowell captures so well the sense of youthful awkwardness in love that I had fond flashes of my high school romances – and of high school in general. I dreamed of the SHS cafeteria last night after finishing the book, an UNO game I’d long forgotten, and I hope some high schoolers or even late middle schoolers who are having trouble pick up this book and see that it’s okay to be themselves. And it’s okay to tell someone if there’s trouble at home. The ending might be a bit too contrived in its heartbreak but reading it at age 15, you might feel like you want to put it next to those other books that broke your heart at that age – Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, and so on. This is young adult literature for young adults – not young adult literature for the masses. Good on you, Ms. Rowell. Kids need it.