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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

'Eleanor and Park' by Rainbow Rowell

 From the BLURB:

“Bono met his wife in high school,” Park says.
“So did Jerry Lee Lewis,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be,” she says, “we’re 16.”
“What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Shallow, confused, then dead.”
“I love you,” Park says.
“Wherefore art thou,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be.”

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

Eleanor is returning to her family; her mum, three younger brothers and little sister. She has been away for a year, after her step-dad, Richie, kicked her out and her mum dumped her off with well-meaning friends who didn’t know “a little while” would turn into a whole year. Now she’s home, because Richie wants to ‘make peace’ and be a ‘real family’. But that will never happen. Not when Richie drinks and shouts, leaves bruises on her beautiful mother and has Eleanor’s siblings waking up scared in the middle of the night. But at least she’s home . . .  sort of. She’s in Omaha, about to start a new school year that goes disastrously wrong the moment she steps on the bus.

Park can’t believe his eyes when she gets on his bus. A big girl, all stout curves, and giant red hair made worse by her army-surplus clothes, random ribbons on her wrists and in her hair and the giant men’s shirts she sports. The insults start almost instantaneously; Big Red being the most popular. Park keeps his head down – he’s lucky that the school bully and his girlfriend, Steve and Tina, are Park’s next-door-neighbour and sixth-grade girlfriend, respectively – being the only half-Korean kid in his school sticks him out enough, the last thing he needs is this ‘Big Red’ attracting attention to him. Except she does. She sits next to him on the bus and now they’re stuck together. . .

At first they enjoy a mutually-agreed-upon truce of cold-shouldering. Then Park notices that Big Red (actually called Eleanor) is reading his comic books over his shoulder. When he starts slowing down his reading of ‘Watchmen’ and ‘X-men’, he gains a friend. So Park starts bringing his old comics for Eleanor to take home and read. Then he makes a point of asking her about ‘The Smiths’ lyrics on her binder – then decides to make her mix-tapes of the bands and artists she has never heard before.

What starts as begrudging seat-acceptance turns into a mutual love of comics, blossoms into friendship and then turns into the most important thing in both their lives.

‘Eleanor and Park’ is the young adult novel from Rainbow Rowell.

I have been desperate to read this book ever since I discovered Rainbow Rowell’s debut novel, ‘Attachments’ and gained a favourite. I was over-the-moon thrilled to learn that Rowell’s second literary outing would be a YA romance. And then I tried to buy the book, and I hit the first of many hurdles with ‘Eleanor and Park’. . .

Rowell sold the rights to ‘Eleanor and Park’ to her UK publishers – so the book would be released there before America. Okay, fine. No worries. I went onto the UK Amazon site and purchased a copy of the book (would have bought an ebook copy for my Kindle, but Amazon UK doesn’t sell ebooks to my territory?!). I patiently waited for my ‘Eleanor and Park’ book to be shipped off and land in my hot little hands. Except it didn’t. The ‘shipping estimate’ kept being pushed back because, according to Amazon UK, they didn’t technically have any copies to send (even though they were listed as having book available?!). I tried buying through an Amazon private seller, which was also fine . . . until a week went by and they contacted me to cancel my purchase because they didn’t, technically, have a book to send me. Grr. I went onto the Amazon US site, and even though the book was listed and being sold through private sellers, there was no technical release date for the book to be released in the US. Again, I tried purchasing through a private seller who, again, contacted me and said although they were listing the book for sale, they didn’t ‘technically’ have any copies to send me. My Amazon UK purchase, by this time, had its shipping estimate pushed back to two months. So I bit the bullet and bought the Kindle from the Amazon US site . . .  for $17.36. I know! Crazy! Insane! But a testament to how much I loved ‘Attachments’ and how eager I was to read Rowell’s second literary foray.

Sadly, ‘Eleanor and Park’ did not meet my expectations . . . after all that hubbub to actually read the darn thing!

The story is told through third-person omniscient narration, from the alternating viewpoints of Eleanor and Park. Set in Omaha in 1986, Eleanor is returning to a horrible family life after being kicked out for a year by her drunken stepfather. Her welcome home is dampened when she sees how her little brothers and sister, once allied against Richie, have started calling him ‘dad’ in Eleanor’s absence and have begrudgingly accepted his late-night fights with their mother and her bruises the next morning. To make matters worse, Eleanor faces a firing squad of school bullies when she starts the new semester. Her looks don’t exactly help, she knows; a big girl with flaming red hair and freckles, she dresses to hide the many rips and holes in her second-hand clothing, and needing to shut herself in her room to avoid her stepfather limits her social schedule a tad.

Park is the first person to offer Eleanor a small kindness, albeit begrudgingly, when he offers her a seat next to him on the bus. Park is half-Korean; his dad was a veteran who met his mum during the war; they married in Seoul and are still madly in love to this day. Park has a younger brother called Josh who takes after their father in all-American looks and just about everything else – from being able to drive stick to picking up their taekwondo lessons more easily. For this reason, but especially because of his obvious Asian exoticness, Park feels that his father favours Josh over him, and always will.

When Park starts sharing his comic book readings with Eleanor, the two strike up an unusual bond – they start discussing and debating everything from bland Batman to the perfection of Joy Division. And pretty soon, increment by small increment, Eleanor and Park start crossing boundaries with one another . . . holding hands, sneaking kisses . . .  nobody understands what Park sees in his awkward big girl (least of all Eleanor). But what they have is special and verging on forever. Until Eleanor’s home-life gets so bad that Park has to step in.

Credit where credit’s due; some things in ‘Eleanor and Park’ worked really well. Like Rowell showing the evolution of young romance – from first encounter to heart-thumping end. What’s especially brilliant in reading the building of Eleanor and Park’s love is their duel-perspectives. It’s great fun to read how every brush of legs and sideways glance is taken and differently deconstructed by the two of them. The simple act of holding hands for the first time turns into an explosively epic encounter for them both. Reading Eleanor and Park’s individual freak-outs and inner-earthquakes was brilliant, and will no doubt take you back to your own first romance and the little moments that meant so much;

Eleanor
All through first and second and third hour, Eleanor rubbed her palm.
Nothing happened.
How could it be possible that there were that many nerve endings all in one place?
And were they always there, or did they just flip on whenever they felt like it? Because, if they were always there, how did she manage to turn doorknobs without fainting?
Maybe this was why so many people said it felt better to drive a stick shift.
Park
Jesus. Was it possible to rape somebody’s hand?
Eleanor wouldn’t look at Park during English and history. He went to her locker after school, but she wasn’t there.
When he got on the bus, she was already sitting in their seat – but sitting in his spot, against the wall. He was too embarrassed to say anything. He sat down next to her and let his hands hang between his knees. . .
Which meant she really had to reach for his wrist, to pull his hand into hers. She wrapped her fingers around his and touched his palm with her thumb.
Her fingers were trembling.
Park shifted in his seat and turned his back to the aisle.
‘Okay?’ she whispered.
He nodded, taking a deep breath. They both stared down at their hands.
Jesus.

I feel like I should warn readers who are coming to ‘Eleanor and Park’ fresh from ‘Attachments’ – don’t expect the chuckle-fest of that first book. ‘Eleanor and Park’ may squeeze a smile and smirk out of you in the reading, but there’s too much heavy subject matter in here to allow much room for laughing-out-loud. Overall, I have to say that I didn’t love that this was a young adult book, for a few reasons.

First, throughout the book there was this constant feeling that all of the young characters were plagued by powerlessness. Eleanor is stuck in her terrible home life because her mother thinks to make the best of a bad situation – even when that bad situation is drunk, scares her kids half to death and beats her regularly. But Eleanor doesn’t want to leave her family again; she can’t imagine what will happen to the little kids and her mother if she isn’t there to keep an eye on Richie. Park feels powerless in his relationship with his father – knowing that he’ll never act or look the way he wants, to truly accept Park for who he is. Now, this feeling of powerlessness is fine – it’s part of Eleanor and Park’s story. And Eleanor’s story, for all that it’s frustratingly heart-in-your-throat to read the abuse her and her family suffers, it is powerful and realistic. But I never felt like either Eleanor or Park rose above their power-struggles. I feel like in a certain kind of YA novel, the protagonist’s should be empowered – they should become their own hero’s and have the opportunity to save themselves, or each other. I don’t feel like that happened in ‘Eleanor and Park’.

I was waiting for that moment – for a dénouement in which Eleanor confronted her mother and Park his father – even if their talks with those parents were fruitless and came to nothing, I feel like there would have been power in at least speaking the words. I don’t know, it was just very hard to read a book, lovely romance aside, in which these downtrodden teen characters never really get the opportunity to level the playing field a little bit. I especially felt this with Eleanor and her mum. I’m not saying I wanted a scene in which Eleanor whacked Richie out cold with a saucepan (delicious as that would have been) – I just wanted her to sit her mum down and tell it like it is, lay the truth on the line and make her wake up to herself – to even try.

I think it was partly this foreboding feeling of powerlessness in the characters that had me hoping that the book would skip ahead to an adult Eleanor and Park. Now, I don’t normally love the ‘fast forward’ technique – but I thought that what Rowell lacked in her teen characters could be made up if she fast-forwarded them to adulthood. I know Rowell writes brilliant and complex adult romances (have I mentioned that ‘Attachments’ is superb?) and I felt it would be nice to read a grown Eleanor and Park, when they’d be old enough to leave home and save themselves. Not to mention it would have been great to see if Park’s prediction of young romance held true (or if Eleanor’s more cynical, “Romeo and Juliet were idiots” approach won out). Sadly, this did not happen. We remain in 1986, with sixteen-year-old Eleanor and Park; more the pity.

I also had an issue with a few of the secondary characters in the book. A girl called Tina takes it upon herself to be Eleanor’s worst nightmare – an awful bullying girl who kicks Eleanor when she’s down. I think Rowell did a good job at touching on the awfulness of bullying – but the Tina character got away from her towards the end, when she decided to write a last minute ‘sorta’ explanation for Tina’s awfulness. It didn’t work. It was rushed and random, and would have done better to be teased and touched on throughout the book rather than tacked on at the end. Then there was Park’s best friend, Cal. We get very few scenes between Cal and Park, but they were some of the funniest as Park tries to convince him not to ask out the most beautiful girl in school. These scenes were so sporadic and scarce that they did more to highlight how strange it was that Cal wasn’t a bigger part of Park’s life. In general, secondary characters were, sadly, few and far between in the book.

Finally, my last problem with this novel was the ending. Now, I love me an open-ended finale. Unlike some people I don’t read them as being a cop-out or indecisive. I read open-endings as the characters leaving us with infinite possibility for their futures. However, the open-ended ending of ‘Eleanor and Park’ is just downright frustrating and unfulfilling . . .  and seemed to shift the powerlessness of the characters onto the reader. For one thing, the last few chapters had a lot of harsh blows coming in quick succession – and when there was that much misery jam-packed, I would have liked a slightly tidier end to make up for it.

All in all, ‘Eleanor and Park’ was a bit of a letdown – and trust me when I say that no one is more surprised at my disappointment than me. I had high hopes since reading (and loving!) Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Attachments’ – I thought she would be perfectly suited to a teen romance. And while the book had some lovely quirky, heartfelt romantic moments, sadly overall I felt that the YA genre is not for Rowell. Her teen protagonists were frustratingly powerless; Eleanor in her rotten home life, Park in his relationship with his father. Too many secondary characters were left to fall by the wayside and revert to one-dimensional caricatures, and the ending was exasperatingly vague and unfulfilling after reading so much bleakness. I also feel like the book’s tagline of ‘You never forget your first love. . . ’ hints that it will look at whether or not young romance stands the test of time – and for that reason I would have liked a skip-ahead in the timeline, to see if finding ‘the one’ at sixteen is possible?

3/5

6 comments:

  1. Oh no! I loved Attachments so I have been looking forward to this one!

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  2. I bought mine from The Book Depository and didn't have any of your trouble! I haven't yet read it yet, it's sitting in a huge pile... I've been so excited about it I was almost keeping it for a special day. You know how sometimes there are days where you look at a certain book and you're like YES! You! Today is perfect for you.

    Now I'm a little apprehensive, because I trust your opinion!

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  3. @ 1girl2manybooks & Marg - Hey. I know! I loved 'Attachments' too ... I should clarify something though. When I posted my review on Amazon, a girl commented to say that she had similar problems with getting the book, and also that the US publishers were going to market it as an adult book. And that, for me, changes a lot of the context. I think it will still struggle, because it will be an adult book with teenage protagonists experiencing the very teenage ideal of 'first love' - but maybe some of the hopelessness I felt will be forgiven when targeted at fairly jaded adults? I don't know. This one was a bit of a hodge-podge and didn't really work for me.

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  4. A really interesting review Danielle, I liked Attachments quite a lot and on the strength of that may have picked this up though I am not overly keep on teenage protagonists. I'm a little more wary now

    Shelleyrae

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    1. Hey Shelleyrae! I do hope you give 'Eleanor and Park' a read. Maybe it was the teen protagonists (a real switch from very adult problems in 'Attachments') but I think this is a polarizing book - either love it or hate it. I hope nobody is put off by my review, but I would be interested at other reviewer's take on this book.

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  5. Fantastic review, Danielle! I loved the line where Park asks about raping someone's hand. I agree with all the points you brought up, and I LOVED Attachments too. I wish I had seen your review before I got the book so I could've tempered my expectations. That's so weird that you were able to buy it from Amazon US. I couldn't find it anywhere on Amazon/Kindle so I ended up getting the book from Australia.

    -Maggie

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