I have an eight month old baby who still gets up every three hours to nurse. Because I also suffered insomnia during my pregnancy, I have not had a full night of uninterrupted sleep since before last Christmas. Needless to say, in my life, sleep is precious. This book is so freaking good, I traded a whole night's sleep to savor it. I read the first few chapters about a week ago, and then life got away from me. Last night when I got up to feed my son the first of his many nocturnal snacks (the feeding I call "elevensies"), I picked up where I'd left off... and then I couldn't stop. The baby went back to sleep. I did not. I finished reading a little after 3:00 AM. Two hours after that, when O got up for his third and final feeding of the night, I was still awake, processing this beautiful book, still blown away by what I'd read.
Eleanor & Park is the story of two sixteen-year-olds who fall in love while riding the school bus. It's set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986. Eleanor is a chubby redhead who dresses like a freak (not so much because of her own quirky fashion sense, but because her family doesn't have any money). She has a terrible home life: she's the oldest of five children sharing a single bedroom in a tiny house, where there's never anything to eat but beans, no privacy, and all the kids and their mom walk on egg shells, trying not to set off their violent, abusive, alcoholic stepfather. As if life at home were not bad enough, she's also subject to relentless bullying at school. Park is good looking, popular, and from a much more stable home, but as the only Asian kid at school, he feels like an outsider, too. They fall in love over comic books and mix tapes.
There were so many things I loved about this book. Much as I hate to say it, often in books where the hero is portrayed as gorgeous and the heroine is, well, not, it can be hard to see what he sees in her. Most books employing this trope solve that problem by either giving the heroine a makeover or by portraying her as having a warped self-image, so that the reader understands she's a lot more attractive than she thinks she is. On the one hand, the heroine is unattractive but she's fixable, or on the other, she's not unattractive, but she's too dumb or damaged to realize it. Both options have always struck me as annoying and anti-feminist. Eleanor & Park doesn't take either path. Eleanor doesn't conform to traditional standards of beauty, and she dresses "like a sad hobo clown." Park's mom gives her a makeover, but neither she nor Park thinks it makes her look any better than she does in her own, unpainted skin.
Park loves her anyway, and Rainbow Rowell tells the story well enough that it isn't at all a mystery why. Park says she reads poetry "like it was a living thing. Like something she was letting out. You couldn't look away from her as long as she was talking." (p. 38) He thinks holding her hand is "like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive." (p. 71) He notes: "Eleanor was right: She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn't supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something." (p. 164) Quite simply, Eleanor gives Park All The Feels.
I love the intensity of their relationship. I read another review that compared it to Insta-love, but I disagree. First, they don't fall in love instantly. For the first several months of their acquaintance, they don't even talk to each other. Park worries about what associating with the weird New Girl will do to his popularity. Eleanor thinks of him as "that stupid Asian kid." But when they do fall in love, they fall hard. I remember back twenty years to my own high school romance, and I fell just as hard, just as fast, without nearly as much need to be rescued from my loneliness as either Eleanor or Park have. Such is the nature of teenage love, I suspect.
My biggest complaint about the book is that their relationship is a bit one-sided. -Not in level of attraction or depth of feeling or reliance on the other -- in all of these things, they are well matched -- but Eleanor doesn't seem to give quite as much to the relationship. She doesn't have nearly as much faith in Park and in their future as Park has, and while I totally understand why--(her own mother gave her away for a year for arguing with her stepfather, so of course she might have trust issues)--it made me sad. Park rescues Eleanor in an obvious, literal sense, and she is grateful, but I don't think Eleanor realized that she rescued Park just as much, or that he might need her just as much, for less obvious reasons. Consequently, the ending really disappointed me, even though it felt organic to the story and believable and true, and maybe even necessary.