Eleanor + Park by Rainbow Rowell

“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and something completely alive.”

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell was recommended to me by Jazmin at Writersmania. Being a child of the 80s, how could I resist? Rainbow Rowell knows how to mesmerize words into things of beauty and the 1980s music, comics and books had me reliving my childhood.

Eleanor and Park meet on the bus to school. The first words they exchange aren’t the makings of true love:

“Jesus-fuck, just sit down”

But things get better. They bond over X-Men and Watchmen. Eleanor reads Park’s comics, peering over his shoulder. Then he lends them to her, then he makes her mix tapes, then he falls in love. Eleanor’s not far behind.

Eleanor is relentlessly bullied by Tina and her friends: for her red hair, for being fat, for being the new girl at school. When Park has enough of Tina’s boyfriend’s taunts, he kicks Steve in the face and Steve tones it down on the bus. The girls in gym class only get worse.

While the bus ride becomes a haven for their burgeoning feelings, Eleanor’s home life deteriorates. Her step dad Richie beats her mother and verbally abuses Eleanor. There’s never enough food on the table because Richie drinks away his pay check. Eleanor thinks about asking the school counselor for a toothbrush, but doesn’t want the ensuing hugs.

When Park turns up at Eleanor’s house, she’s barely able to avert the violence of her step dad finding out she has a boyfriend. Eleanor reluctantly spends more time at Park’s house, but she’s always on edge. Seeing his happily married parents and their perfect house, wondering if Park will catch her out as the imposter she thinks she is. The real danger of her step dad finding out where she spends her after school hours and the imagined worry of Park realizing she’s just Eleanor: fat and ugly and all too ordinary.

The alternating viewpoints show every hiccup in their relationship from both sides, each questioning what the other sees and all the thoughts they’re too scared to voice.

Eleanor’s weight is a constant insecurity for her, heightened by the bullies’ favorite taunt, Big Red, but Park has no concept of her being anything but beautiful. When they trust each other enough to share their thoughts on what attracts them each other, neither quite believes the other.

Park explains why he thinks he’s not good looking, “Nobody thinks Asian guys are hot.” Eleanor counters this by saying her heritage is Danish and Scottish and “does it matter?” Park lives with the difference between white and ‘other.’ His Korean heritage is

“the number one thing people use to identify me. It’s my main thing.”

I liked Park’s explanation to Eleanor, that being Korean matters, and it’s very different to Eleanor’s white heritage. Ellen Oh is Korean American and blogged about why she didn’t like Rainbow Rowell’s portrayal of Park. Being white, middle class and never having experienced racism, I hadn’t considered all her points, but the more I think about it, the more I agree with Ellen Oh. I found another discussion of Park’s portrayal at Rich in Color. Similar to Ellen Oh, but Jessica continues,

“I picked up Fangirl, another book by the same author, and gobbled it up. Though it was a fun read, I finished the book with the same troubled feeling, this time about the novel’s problematic treatment of mental health and anxiety issues. Same author, different book, and a pattern emerged, causing me to question my initial reading of Eleanor and Park.”

Mental health is something I can comment on. I hadn’t planned on reading Fangirl, and I’m apprehensive about whether I should. Rainbow Rowell’s Landline had me laughing the whole way through, but I felt there were two minor characters whose race and sexual orientation were only inserted to tick the diversity box.

Diversity of race/sexuality/disability is important in books written for young people, as is diversity in privilege. Rainbow Rowell writes this well. Eleanor’s family lives in abject poverty, every day a struggle, with never enough to go round. I can think of lots of speculative fiction where poverty, starvation and existing, rather than living, are central to the plot, but not so much in realistic fiction. Perhaps publishers don’t think poor people read books. Young people need to read about the reality of disadvantage. It’s all around us and can be easy to ignore.

“Everything anybody ever said in this house was desperate. Desperate was white noise, as far as Eleanor was concerned – it was the hope that pulled at her heart with dirty little fingers.”

Poverty and domestic violence are central to Eleanor’s life. No matter how much the joy of young love overtakes her, these horrors shadow her. This makes Eleanor & Park an important book. When Eleanor says, if only she could be like Dicey Tillerman and save her brothers and sisters, I felt her pain. Cynthia Voigt wrote about poverty and abuse and was a staple of my teenage reading. Setting Eleanor & Park in 1986 as the Watchmen comics came out was clever. This is gold:

“I’m beginning to think you shouldn’t have started reading comics with a book that completely deconstructs the last fifty years of the genre.”

Yes, I know comics are a format, not a genre (I did a PhD on the damn things) but I love it anyway.

Watchmen by Moore and Gibbons