No one forgets their first love. When Park reluctantly shares his seat on the bus with the eccentrically dressed new girl, he never, ever suspects that he'd end up falling in love with her, quirks and all. Eleanor, with her untamable red hair and slightly-larger-than-average size, quickly finds herself the brunt of cruel jokes and sneers. Even after school, she returns to a home with an abusive stepfather, a cowering mother, and four younger siblings she has to take care of. The two star-crossed misfits are smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts--but they're brave and desperate enough to try.
What's clear from the start is just how young Eleanor and Park are. Yeah, I know I'm just a teenager myself, but the innocence that you see in the two protagonists are unmistakably there--and it's what makes their story so endearing. Throughout the story, Park clings onto the belief that love, even when it's happening in tenth grade, can be true and lasting. But what Ms. Rowell does extremely well in the face of such seeming naivete is transform it into something beautiful, something hopeful. And she does this by reminding those of us who have had our first love that that's exactly how we felt. Take, for example:
Eleanor made him feel like something was happening. Even when they were just sitting on the couch.
This line struck me right in the heart. Because that's what being with your first love is like: the familiarity, the comfort, like you're sharing something with one another even if you're not expressly doing anything. The way Ms. Rowell evokes these emotions and empathy transcends the novel past a typical high school love story. Instead, it's the truth, sweet and simple as that.
Eleanor and Park themselves are such interesting characters to read about as the story progresses. Eleanor is, without a doubt, quirky and different, wearing sharkskin suits and neckties around her ponytail. But even if you don't wear men's clothes or do anything eccentric like that, you can still relate to Eleanor because she's deals with pretty normal issues that other people have to deal with in their lives, like being bullied or having family problems. Yet she still maintains her cynical wit and, despite everything, an innocence that can't be taken away from her, something which grows when she falls in love for the first time. For Eleanor, her love with Park gave her hope and strength that kept her from falling apart in the face of these issues. For Park, on the other hand, his love with Eleanor gave him the opportunity to grow and really find himself. As the story progresses, Park becomes a much more active and dynamic character, someone who isn't afraid to wear eyeliner or kick a guy in the face for bullying his girlfriend. Through Eleanor and Park, Ms. Rowell reminds her readers just how big of a role our first loves play in our lives, unforgettably and irrevocably.
"Eleanor & Park" is also beautifully written, allowing Ms. Rowell to convey subtle nuances and messages in the most poignant of ways. This is especially important, I think, in realistic fiction novels, since there isn't much heart-racing battle scenes or out-of-this-world magical powers to get the story moving. Instead, the author has to work mostly with two things: her characters and her language. There's nothing flowery about Ms. Rowell's prose. Rather, it's simple and to the point, and that's what makes it so striking. There's quite a bit of parallel structures used in the writing, which helps to really drive the point home. The same effect is achieved through her use of short, simple sentences. One of my favourite lines was:
I'm yours. The me that's me right now is yours. Always.
Wow, I just got tingles just from copying that down. How true is that? "The me that's me right now". Wow. I said 'wow' a lot in this review, didn't I?
All in all, Ms. Rainbow Rowell's "Eleanor & Park" is a smart, poignant story about first love, with two endearing protagonists, simple, evocative writing, and the central message that there is always hope.