Desert Isle Keeper
Eleanor and Park
If any book proves the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” it’s the amazing YA novel, Eleanor and Park. Going by the cutesy, cartoon drawing on the dust jacket, one would expect a light, quirky, first-love story geared toward the teen set. Instead, this book will crush you, showing how life can be unbearably cruel and hateful yet still contain amazing acts of kindness, true love, and beauty. I couldn’t put it down.
On Eleanor’s first day of school, no one will move over to give her a seat on the bus. She’s not surprised. Awkward and different-looking with her bright red hair and less-than-svelte body, she’s usually the school outcast. When the “weird Asian boy” scoots over enough to make room for her, she is grateful but wouldn’t dream of expressing it.
Park doesn’t want to give Eleanor a seat. As a half-Korean guy in a blue-collar neighborhood, one who likes comic books, alternative music and a lot of black clothing, he already skirts the fringes of acceptable, and helping out the social pariah is a headache he doesn’t need. But he takes pity on Eleanor and moves towards the window to make room, although he refuses to speak to her. Not that she would ever speak to him. Thus begins the most unlikely of romances.
It takes weeks for Park and Eleanor to finally speak to each other, and even longer for them to touch. But once the walls break down, these two unique individuals find that they are two souls searching for the other.
Eleanor’s life is pure hell. She lives with her mother, her younger siblings, and an abusive, alcoholic stepfather who kicked her out of the house and forced her to stay with acquaintances for a year before allowing her to come back home. School offers her no comfort. She’s constantly the victim of bullies who make fun of her hair and weight and her thrift-store clothing, which she covers with scraps of cloth in order to hide the holes. Eleanor’s need to avoid the wrath of her stepfather has taught her to be as invisible as possible, and she moves through the day with her gaze cast downward, hardly believing that anyone would ever love anything about her, especially a guy like Park, cute and from a good family.
Park’s home life is solid, with two parents who openly love each other and truly care about his wellbeing. But his life isn’t perfect. His father is judgmental and disapproving, struggling to understand a son who wants to wear eyeliner and is more interested in music than guns and learning to drive a stick shift. Thankfully, Park’s Korean mother is a strong woman who advocates for her son, and their relationship is one of the highlights of the book.
As Park and Eleanor’s feelings for each other deepen, Eleanor finds solace and escape in Park’s “Brady Bunch” life. Unfortunately, she knows that it’s only a matter of time before her stepfather learns that she has a boyfriend, something that would send him over the edge and maybe even put her safety in danger. Other obstacles conspire to separate them, but always they find that being apart is far more painful than anything they’d have to endure to be together.
Told in alternating third-person between Park and Eleanor, author Rowell captures perfectly the voice and feelings of being a teenager, the awkwardness of falling in love and the complete all-body absorption involved when one person becomes so important to another. Rather than dump a lot of background information, Rowell introduces her characters as they are, flaws and all. Only as the story unfolds and we learn more about their respective lives do Eleanor and Park’s actions and reactions make sense, like layers peeling back to reveal what has caused so much damage.
I openly confess that I spent much of my time reading this book with tears steaming down my face. Not only were the depictions of the cruelty that Eleanor was forced to endure truly heartbreaking, Park’s efforts to prove how much he cared for her were equally as moving. In one instance, when Park learns that Eleanor is too poor to buy batteries for her Walkman in order to listen to the mixed tapes he’s made for her, Park empties all of the batteries from his own electronic devices to give to her, then tells his grandmother that all he wants for his birthday is more batteries. He’s a hero in every sense of the word.
Rowell sets her story in 1986, but she keeps the eighties references to a quiet background hum that is barely noticeable. I suspect her need for this particular time period is because of the music Park favors. She does an amazing job depicting the sense of despair that permeates Eleanor’s house, and I felt as if I were watching a train wreck as permanent psychological damage is inflicted on not only Eleanor, but her younger siblings too, by living with a monster of a stepfather and a helpless victim of a mother. I also really appreciated Rowell’s depiction of Park’s mother’s Korean accent, which felt realistic without ever lapsing into mockery or racism.
Nothing about this book was what I expected. I simply couldn’t stop reading, wanting to know how these two young people would overcome the obstacles that the world throws at them. A warning to those who require a traditional happy ending: you won’t find it here. There are no easy solutions or pat answers to the problems that Eleanor and Park face, and the emotional scars that they bear are too deep to heal simply through the power of love, no matter how true. However, the way that Rowell leaves things is extremely hopeful, and I closed the book feeling good about where Eleanor and Park were headed.
This book will haunt you. It will make you hurt and it will make you smile, and you’ll be thinking about these characters long after their story has finished. In my opinion, that’s the mark of a book well worth reading, and I can’t recommend Eleanor and Park highly enough.