It’s 1986, and half-Korean Park is wondering how he wound up offering the new girl a seat next to him on the bus. Park isn’t exactly a pariah, but he’s no local hero; reasonably popular and together, he sees this new girl as an oddity. Then he notices that she’s reading his comic books over his shoulder. And that she’s actually kind of cool. And that when someone gets aggressive towards her, his first instinct is to use years of martial arts practice to kick the other guy in the head.
It’s 1986, and Eleanor and Park are — as you may well have guessed by now — in love. Their soundtrack ranges from the Smiths to Dire Straits, from Bryan Adams to Joy Division; their backdrop comprises Alan Moore’s dystopic graphic novel Watchmen, reflecting the violence and rage in Eleanor’s life, and The X-Men, an allegory for Park’s status as a neither-here-nor-there outsider.
It’s 1986, and as they bond over music and graphic novels, all Eleanor and Park want to do is hold hands. Well, they’re teenagers so they probably want to do a little bit more, but Rowell isn’t interested in raunch as much as she is in emotion. Equal parts romantic and realist, Rowell refuses to sacrifice truth — or what feels like it— for the sake of starry-eyed gawping.
Eleanor, for example, is a former runaway who has come home after a year of foster care and living in other people’s houses, only to find herself trapped in a house that would give creditable competition to one of Dickens’ orphanages. She and her many siblings live in a tiny room that they all share, if indeed you can call that “living,” given how terrifying life in that room is. Richie, Eleanor’s step-father, is an abusive alcoholic who keeps the family in a state of perpetual terror, cursing and screaming at them with no provocation whatsoever (and, Rowell implies, making free use of his fists whenever the mood takes him). At school, things are only slightly better: with the exception of two girls from her gym class, Eleanor has no friends. What she has instead is a group of girls who destroy her already bedraggled clothing while she’s in gym class, and a set of books decorated with ever-more-graphic curses and violent imagery. Sometimes, you’ll feel it’s hard to tell who’s worse, Richie or Eleanor’s school-mates.
In stark contrast to Eleanor’s nightmarish existence we have Park, who despite bearing the brunt of his war veteran father’s disappointment in a son who likes to wear eye-liner and fails at driving a stick-shift, lives in a safe and mostly supportive environment. Supportive enough that he is comfortable assisting his Korean mother with shampooing hair in her at-home beauty salon, and ignoring his younger (but physically bigger) brother’s crude taunts. Frankly, Park has the long end of the stick: he may have parental flare-ups and an annoying sibling to deal with, but at least the only black eye he ever needs to fear would come from martial arts practice.
It’s not hard to see how or why Eleanor falls for Park, and the depth of Rowell’s gift as a raconteur is implicit in the way she manages to bring the two together without making it into some sort of high-handed melodrama of passion and love and loss. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of all three, but they are symptoms of the situation, rather than the actual root cause(s). You just watch the relationship unfold, over the pages of comic books, and set to a soundtrack of late-night telephone calls and shared earphones, and delight in the experience that maybe sometimes good things do happen to good people.
Until, of course, they don’t. There are moments in Eleanor & Park that sometimes feel a bit manufactured, fragments of darkness that feel as if they’ve been squeezed into the text for the sake of contrast. For example, it’s a bit hard to believe that it’s actually so incredibly important for Park to want to be his own man. It’s almost amusing to read about how Park’s mother almost recoils at her first sight of the grubby Eleanor, or how incredibly oblivious Eleanor’s mother is to the abuse her husband dishes out to the members of his “family”. But that quibble aside, it’s remarkable how natural and affectless the writing feels: narratively, it just works, and works well.
This is where and how Rowell’s book is different from many other young adult romances. The melodrama and cliché of love, its ability to inspire hope and create sadness, to confuse and to clarify, all at the same time, are not things that feel as though they are being deployed with an end-goal in mind. Both Eleanor and Park are so well-articulated (and articulate) that you may find it difficult to separate out your own perspective. They are utterly convincing teenagers in love who narrate their shared story of what it means to be teenagers in love, who make you remember — or imagine — how love makes you feel, how it tears you apart and brings you together. Eleanor & Park is diaphanous as gossamer, but with the tensile strength of steel cable.
Eleanor & Park
By Rainbow Rowell