Finally! I feel like I've been waiting to read Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell forever. It's really only been months but still. My library was taking ages to get a copy and I had to wait until it fit in the book budget. Yay for birthdays! I really enjoyed this book. Rowell is great at really making you feel the emotions of her characters. I was not surprised at the announcement on Saturday that it won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award. It is certainly deserving of it.
Eleanor is surviving life and that is the best she can currently hope for. Starting a new high school, her first day gets off to the worst start when no one makes room for her to sit. Finally a begrudging boy orders her to just sit next to him and he's not exactly friendly. Park doesn't want to share his bus seat, especially with some one as odd as Eleanor, but as the weeks pass little things begin to intrigue him, like the song titles she writes on her book covers and the fact that she is covertly reading his comics along with him. Soon he slowly begins to share his passions with her. She borrows his comics and he makes her mix tapes with the songs she wants to hear. They begin talking, they get to know each other, they fall in love. But Eleanor's life is a disaster waiting to explode into devastation, and even the power of first love isn't going to be able to fix it.
Eleanor & Park is a sweet and wonderful love story, but that is not all it is. The way the romance between Eleanor and Park unfurls is everything a great first love should be. I loved the slowness of it all, and how epic a moment simply holding hands is for these two. The descriptions of their interactions are great, and it was wonderful to see an actual relationship develop where there was communication. This is nowhere near love at first sight, it is a gradual thing. Underneath the sweetness of this story there is a seething ugliness to contrast it. Eleanor's life is a desperate struggle. She shares a room with four siblings. She has few clothes and only one box full of possessions she can call her own. Her step-father is a monster. Her entire family lives in daily terror. This is heart breaking to read.
Eleanor is a wonderful character, one who is likable and sympathetic but has definite flaws. It is easy to see why Park finds her so weird at first. It is easy to see how he gets frustrated with her, but seeing the bigger picture of her life makes her a truly dynamic character. Park is not as well developed, and if it weren't for one particular scene I would have come away saying he is too good to be true. Even with that he seems a little to ideal, but I can't mind because Eleanor needed that kind of hero in her life.
I love the way Rowell writes, so simply and yet with layers of meaning. She is a writer who says much with few words and I always respect that. She also wrote one of the best metaphors of all time: She's what would happen if the devil married the wicked witch, and they rolled their baby in a bowl of chopped evil. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, it's real. Sometimes a little too real for me to enjoy without qualification. Generally, I don't mind strong language in books particularly if it lends realism to the story. The language in this book certainly does that. However, there were so many instances of using God and Christ along with other words that it made me as personally uncomfortable. I know this was the intent though. This book SHOULD make you uncomfortable, and the language that is used, not just what I would find personally insulting, but how it is directed toward Eleanor is key to understanding the harshness of her existence.
So is this YA or adult? I think it is both. This is why age designations for books bother me so much. Yes, it's about teens and teens will enjoy it and find themselves in it even with the 1986 setting. Adults will appreciate this book, even ones who don't regularly read YA because they should also find themselves in it.
Note for Concerned Parents: There is a lot of strong language and some intense romantic situations. There is also quite a bit of violent and ugly family dynamics going on.