First love is always the sweetest

eleanor and park

Title: Eleanor & Park

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Publisher & Release Date: February 2013, St. Martin’s

The Hook: Two outcasts fall in love against a backdrop of comic books and New Wave music in this bittersweet romance.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “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.”

Overall Impressions:  This is Rainbow Rowell’s YA debut, and reading it, I found myself wondering, again and again, “Where was Rainbow Rowell when I was a teenager??”.  This is one of the most heart-poundingly romantic, gut-wrenchingly sad stories that I’ve ever read, and it place Rowell firmly in the ranks of John Green and Laurie Halse Anderson as one of the best authors of realistic YA fiction writing today.

When we first meet Eleanor, she is struggling.  She has just moved back in with her mother, siblings and stepfather after spending a year sleeping on a neighbor’s couch.  Her family is poor (due more to her abusive stepfather’s desire to control everyone than to an actual absence of funds), and Eleanor has virtually nothing that she can call her own.  If these factors weren’t enough to make her an outcast at her new school, her plus-size frame, wild red hair and eccentric sense of style do the job.

Park hasn’t suffered as much as Eleanor, but he is still distinctly out of place in his blue-collar community.  Half-Polish, half-Korean, with a penchant for New Wave music and guyliner, his appearance sets him apart, and he is content to keep his head down and avoid attracting the kind of attention that would mean trouble.  When too-big, too-bold Eleanor shows up on the school bus one day, he takes pity on her and gives her a seat, but he wishes that she was smaller, less conspicuous, less of a target, and he doesn’t want her problems to become his own.

Eleanor keeps sitting with him, and over time, he starts to share his comic books and music with her.  Despite their differences, they find common ground.  Park learns to respect Eleanor’s fiery strength and intelligence, and Eleanor comes to appreciate Park’s wit and kindness.  A fierce and tender love blossoms between them, but with the barriers of family and prejudices that threaten to separate them, can their love possibly survive where most first loves fade?

The Highs: Where do I begin? This is one of those rare books that I appreciate more the more I examine it.  To start with, Rowell’s writing is like poetry.  The amount of pulse-pounding lust, love and tenderness that she manages to inject into a description of hand-holding, for instance, has to be read to be believed.  This is, hands down, one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read, and it manages to avoid almost all of the usual pitfalls of YA romance.

The characters are marvelous.  Eleanor is someone I’d want as a best friend, a teacher, a mother, a confidante.  She is strong without being invulnerable, prickly but affectionate, smart and so brave.  The abuse that she faces from her family and classmates would destroy me, but she perseveres in a way that it both remarkable and realistic.  Park is also delightful, and the way his love for Eleanor grows is so touching and believable.  Park’s parents are possibly the best YA fictional parents EVER; at first they came across as kind of overbearing, but they ended up being so wonderful in their decisions to support Park, even when they didn’t understand him or his motivations.

Most of all, I loved this book for making me feel ALL THE FEELINGS.  Rowell manipulated my emotions so deftly, and made me care so deeply about the fate of the dual protagonists.  It’s rare that I find a book that engages me on this level.

Buzzkills:  This book is a hard read, emotionally speaking.  Abuse, neglect, racism and body image issues are all touched upon. The level of cruelty that Eleanor faces at the hands of her stepfather had me crying with rage at several points in the story.  Possibly worse than her stepfather’s abuse is her mother’s emotional neglect, her unwillingness to recognize what she is putting her children through just so she can be “loved”.  Even the more positive relationships, like Park’s with his parents, are tinged with that mutual lack of understanding that characterizes so many teenage transactions.  Being a teenager is tough business, and this book brings back all of the pain, awkwardness and despair of those years.

The Source: ARC from Indiebound

Disclaimer: No chocolate or mixtapes were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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