So take these broken wings, and learn to fly again, learn to live so free…1
Publisher: Orion Books
First Published: 12th April 2012
Date Reviewed: 11th November 2013
Everyone has their own seat on the bus, in fact Park has two as no one sits beside him. When the new girl – large and dressed in strange clothes – walks down the aisle, mockery is rife and the available seats are suddenly taken by backpacks. As the mockery continues, Park offers the girl the seat next to his and that is that. Only it isn’t. Eleanor isn’t quite as different to him as he first thought.
Eleanor & Park is a rather special book that deals with age-old school problems, domestic issues and self-worth, all woven into a beautifully-told love story. Set in the 1980s it offers the reader a chance to settle back into a life where keeping in touch wasn’t as simple as email and music was sold on cassette. There is some humour – there are Eleanor’s brilliant comebacks that would leave glittering princesses in an Austen-esque flutter, and there is some deep consideration.
The beauty is that the book itself doesn’t claim to be special. The plot sounds nice but usual; school romances have been done before. Even the themes aren’t particularly unique. Yet both as a whole and separated into parts, Rowell’s book is delightful. The storytelling is lovely – the emotion and subtext even better. The themes are studied to perfection. And the characterisation is out of this world.
Actually, the characters are completely in this world, and that is what is so brilliant about them. Rowell has access to the same dictionary as everyone else who writes in the English language yet her characters are more realistic than most. If Eleanor and Park showed up at your door, 1980s clothing aside you would not be shocked at all. The pair feel as though they belong in reality, that they are far more than the result of an author’s imagination.
Park is half-Korean just because and there is no massive history provided apart from the understandable dwelling on parents. Eleanor is fat, a description more likely to come from her rather than anyone else, just because. Their situations of course have reasoning to them, but baring that Rowell is content to let them just be.
Eleanor’s size is a subject frequently returned to. The reader will notice that she sounds large for a good while, and then once they are seeing her through Park’s eyes and his parents’ eyes rather than Eleanor’s, that perhaps she’s not as large as they had come to believe. Whether Eleanor is large or not is not the question – it is the character’s perspective of herself that is important. Eleanor isn’t worried about her style of dress (besides the fact her clothing is all from Goodwill), nor does she care about her hair – the two things that concern everyone else. Instead she portrays the many disbeliefs and lack of self worth that many young people face, those that are magnified when love is involved. Park’s life is a dream compared to Eleanor’s but it’s not all sunny days and happiness. He has his own inner turmoil to deal with, an identity issue and protective parents.
The book is told in the third person and it jumps back and forth from Park to Eleanor’s point of view. Rowell switches constantly during chapters, ensuring that you hear about each situation from both characters. This inevitably means that the narration is reliable in its own way and that no feelings are left behind. The switches become less prevalent during times when the couple are happily together, in a sort of textual imagery that shows how thoughts can be divided and people misunderstanding of each other when not together. A reinforcement of the idea of separation, of sorts, is in form of the necessary white-space that accompanies the switches.
Rowell’s style may not please everyone. There are many ellipses, emphasised words, and of course there are the references to the 1980s that younger readers may miss. There is also a lot about the then-present culture of the time, mainly in terms of music, that suits the reader who knows the era well. But the eternal stories of first love, of school, and the issues, means that these are not likely to cause major impediment to anyone.
There are some big domestic issues in the book that take a while to become obvious. Some may work the biggest out relatively quickly, others may require the answer. All the issues are difficult; Rowell has chosen to deal with them without delving into angst. This may mean that at times it doesn’t feel as true as it is, but that is surely a point in itself – when issues do not fit the socially-defined descriptions, they can be missed. What is actually the case is that Eleanor is simply used to it and has become a strong person.
Eleanor & Park is an extraordinary story of a love where the two people are similar but their situations very different. It will pull you in, spit you out, and churn you around with the rest of the washing in the machine that Eleanor’s family may or may not possess.
Whatever it will or won’t do it will definitely leave you a changed reader.
1 From Mr Mister’s Broken Wings.
November 18, 2013, 3:26 am
Yay, I am so excited to read this. It’s next on my docket, I’m reading it tomorrow in between the zillions of awful errands I have to do.
November 18, 2013, 10:51 am
Beautiful review, Charlie! Glad to know that you liked the book. I loved the description of the ’80s in the book – especially the mixtape part. I loved this sentence from your review – “The switches become less prevalent during times when the couple are happily together, in a sort of textual imagery that shows how thoughts can be divided and people misunderstanding of each other when not together.” So beautifully put.
November 18, 2013, 1:14 pm
I liked this one, too! The characters have stuck with me, even though I read it months ago.
November 18, 2013, 6:31 pm
I have heard such wonderful things about this book, and am glad you enjoyed it too. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t realized it was set in the 1980’s. I like your description of how real the characters are. This is definitely one I need to add to my wish list. Thank you for your insightful review!
November 18, 2013, 8:58 pm
Yay from me too! Her other ones are great as well!
November 21, 2013, 7:00 am
I wonder if I’m ready to relive the 80s.
But I’m going to find out – you’ve hooked me in, Charlie.
November 24, 2013, 8:58 pm
I really enjoyed this but it’s not like a revolutionary story. I actually would compare it to The Fault in Our Stars. Even though The Fault has to do with cancer patients, it is still underneath the cancer, a story about first teenage love.