A few years ago I was looking for new books to listen to on my long work drives and picked up Eleanor & Park, having seen it all over the book stores and hearing lots of wonderful things about Rainbow Rowell’s work. I almost didn’t bother listening to it after the first 5 minutes – I am not a fan of the 1980s – but I kept listening because my heart started breaking. Eleanor’s life sucks, there’s no way around it, and I had to know if she would find some happiness.
Now, however, my opinion of E&P has fallen slightly – when I interview people at the bookstore, I ask them to find their favorite book in the store. One day, I did three interviews, and they ALL choose E&P. Each and every one. So now I, unfortunately, associate with unoriginal thought.
Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this 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.
[warning: potential spoilers ahead]
Eleanor & Park broke my heart. Rainbow Rowell reminded me that people’s lives are real and terrible and wonderful simultaneously. Eleanor is a complex character, deep and shallow, scared, and excited, open to, yet closed off from, the world around her. Park is naïve and loving, shallow and superficial, deep, and inviting, and thoroughly and completely real. They are both so real that it’s a bit terrifying.
I almost stopped listening to Eleanor & Park multiple times, I don’t like books that are so completely realistic. This is not a fairy tale, there is no guarantee of a happy ending because life has no promise of eternal happiness, just hope. All we get from life is the opportunity to hope for something better, something incredible, something that makes us feel like life is worth living – hope. Park gives Eleanor hope that even though her step father is a terrible person and her mother has turned on her and her father doesn’t care about her and the mean kids at school bully her, there’s still some hope that she can find happiness. That she can be herself without needing to hide away in a closet, a completely private place surrounded by walls, so she doesn’t, so she can’t, get hurt. She’s strange and different and, understandably, has some self-esteem issues. But with Park, she can be herself, and that’s all anyone can really hope for, to find that one person with whom we can let all our walls down, call off the guard dogs and open and share our lives.
We’re all just looking for someone to share our lives with, someone who will love us without judging our life choices, someone who understands, who really understands, who we are and where we come from. For Eleanor, that person is Park. But she knows their time is limited, they’re sixteen years old, and the impermanence of their world, their lives, is almost too overwhelming for her to really relax and let him in. Like any sixteen-year-old girl, she doubts him, her life, everything. Does he love her? How could he love her? It’s the question we all ask when we first fall in love – what’s so special about me? How did I get so lucky to have this person in my life?
Eleanor and Park live in a world that is terribly flawed and therefore completely real. And for me, that was too much to handle. I don’t like reading books that remind me that the world can be a terrible place – I want books that give me hope and a happy ending, regardless of whether it’s realistic or not, not books that remind me that hope is all I have and that happy, sunny endings are the stuff of fairy tales. I don’t like to be reminded that when I was 19, I acted exactly like Eleanor, that I ruined something potentially wonderful because my own life was too overwhelming. I wouldn’t share it with anyone and it led to heart break. I hate it, because I want Eleanor and Park to be together, not have to go their separate ways in life. I was lucky and realized that my first relationship was worthless and terrible and that my life now is far better than it ever would have been had I made different choices at sixteen and nineteen. But for Eleanor and Park, I don’t want them to have to wait to find happiness. I want them happy now, unrealistic though that may be, I don’t care.
Rating: 7 out of 10 stars
Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9781250012579 • 336 pages • published February 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 • read in April 2015