Thursday, March 13, 2014

Eleanor and Park Stole My Heart

Every now and then a young adult book comes along that instantly transports us back to our own adolescence, for better or worse. It can be a painful or a beautiful journey (more often than not, a little of both), but it takes a talented author to do so effortlessly. In Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell tells you a story of two misfits that will leave you forever changed. 

Since her mother brought Eleanor back to the house, she, and everyone else, has had to walk on eggshells. Their stepfather is not a nice man, and in particular, he hates Eleanor. In a house as tiny as theirs, it is all but impossible for her to escape him. Sharing a bedroom with her four siblings, worrying about whether or not they will have food each night, and listening to Richie beat her mother are just some of the reasons Eleanor has no interest in seeking friends in her new school. Never mind the fact that she dresses weird (in whatever her mother gets her from Goodwill), she isn't the skinniest girl, and her flaming red hair has a mind of its own. When she steps foot on the bus that first day, no one will let her sit down... until Park lets her sit with him. 

Park isn't a complete outcast, but he isn't popular by any means either. He tries very hard to keep his head down and blend into the background. When he sees Eleanor, he feels bad, but girls like her are who keep the vicious attention of his peers off his own faults. Taking more after his Korean mother, he has always been too gentle, too feminine, and not manly enough for his former soldier father. He doesn't intend to be anyone's hero, but he can't let Eleanor stand in the aisle of the bus and cry the way those beasts want her to. So he tells her to sit. And that changes everything. 

Eleanor and Park don't talk. He reads his comic books and she carefully tries to read them without letting him know she is peaking over his arm to see. He notices her reading the comics and starts turning the pages slower. Then he starts bringing her comics to borrow. All of this happens without a word shared between the two, but slowly, glacially, Park avoids Eleanor less and less. A few careful questions here, a kind gesture there, and the two find the human interaction they miss the most at the end of each day are the interactions they have together on those bus rides. But Eleanor has a lot to hide and is the target of many a malicious teen. And Park is very conscious of how her proximity affects his ability to camouflage himself from the other kids. Their backgrounds, self-consciousness, and situations should have prevented them from ever getting to know one another, but sometimes life's circumstances can't stop love from blossoming, no matter how hard it tries. 

There is something you should know before you read this book. It has been raved about by bloggers, reviewers, booksellers, and readers everywhere. They are right. John Green gave this clip for the New York Times Book Review: "Eleanor and Park reminded me not just what it's like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it's like to be young and in love with a book."  He was right. Yalsa, Printz, and every other professional in the field loved this book. They were all right. If you are anything like me, you develop an immediate bias against a book when it receives instant and passionate acclaim. Why? I don't know. I guess the little rebel in us doesn't want to love what everyone loves. But that stupid generalization keeps us from books like Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, and Eleanor & Park, so let's just stop this nonsense already, ok?! Because if we miss out on amazing books like this one, we are just silly little rebels who have lost out on a chance to read some seriously amazing books. 

Eleanor and Park was the saddest and most achingly romantic story I have read since The Fault in Our Stars. Eleanor is a girl who just needs life to cut her a break, but no one stands up for her. Until Park. And he doesn't do it willingly at first, but when he does, you know it goes against every ounce of self-preservation inside him. And it is that simple act of sticking his neck out for this girl that will make you love him unconditionally. Park isn't perfect. Even Eleanor knows she embarrasses him, but he wants to be a better person, and more importantly, he can't imagine life without Eleanor. I loved this boy. I really did. My heart broke for Eleanor, but I loved Park. And his life wasn't tulips and daisies either, but it couldn't compare to the war zone she lived in. 

I imagine some critics of this novel might find fault in the love between Eleanor and Park, but you have to think of the lack of love they have both lived with. Park can never be enough to satisfy his father. Eleanor's own mother left her with a neighbor for a year because Richie didn't want her in his house. For two damaged kids, finding that love was transformational, both for them and for you, as the reader. Rowell has the ability to make you love the main characters with a fierce protectiveness that will surprise you, and the ability to make you hate those who hurt them with a ferocity that makes you want to inflict bodily harm upon those fictional characters like Richie and the girls who bully Eleanor in school. 

This is a book that will steal the heart of any reader. Filled with fabulous 80's music references, comic book references, totally called-for foul language, and adolescence in all its ugly glory, it will change ever reader who turns that first page and can't put it down. There are some dark and dirty parts of this story that are hard to read, but they are just as important as the beautiful, innocent, guarded love that blossoms between Eleanor and park. This book is everything people say it is, and I know it will stand the test of time among readers. 

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