I kind of wanted to jump out of my skin the whole time reading Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – which I did in a single, compulsive sitting – because Eleanor is one of my best friends growing up. One of my best friends now, really, but I knew her back in 1986 too. There are differences. Amy wasn’t nearly as withdrawn, and got into a lot more fights. I don’t think she would ever voluntarily listen to the Smiths either – hair metal was much more the thing – but the fundamentals are all there: the home life, the poverty, the complete and total sense of being stuck and stuck forever. She had big sweaters and a lot of hair and mistrust, and pretty much everyone she knew had earned that mistrust twice. And then a third time, because that was the charm. So many of the details of Eleanor, just little things, made my throat strangle because I knew exactly what they meant, what they were covering for, even if Eleanor herself didn’t. Oh Lord.
Which is funny, because tonally, this story is a little dopey. I don’t mean that dismissively, more with affection towards my younger self. Eleanor is the new kid in an Omaha high school, and on the first ugly day on the bus, she ends up sitting next to Park. Park’s not an outcast exactly. He’s from the neighborhood, and has those weird, long relationships that neighborhood kids have with even the popular jerks. (When my bff Alicia got into a fight with Olivia, another neighborhood girl, Olivia pulled some dirty shit on me later. But I knew Olivia’s house and her mom, and we’d hang out occasionally if no one else was on the street. Because it’s neighborhood, you know? It’s not like you’re getting out until you figure out how to use the bus system, and even then.) But Park’s mom’s Korean, so even though he’s neighborhood, and his dad is neighborhood, and his grandparents are neighborhood, people look at him and see the only Asian kid for miles. “That’s not even the right kind of racist,” Park deadpans when his friend says something stupid.
Eleanor and Park fall into a strange, wordless courtship (sorry, hugely dorky word choice there) predicated on comics and mix tapes and never looking each other in the eye. I know, gag. Double gag. But it totally works, because Rowell knows how weird you are, and what a spaz, and how it’s all so embarrassing you’re going to die. How you think that everyone can see that your brain is absolutely covered in ants. And she knows how to write a hand-holding scene that makes me want to freak out. There was this one time, sitting in this boy’s car, where I knew if he didn’t kiss me I was going to die. I was also going to die if he kissed me, and then he did, and the ants escaped my brain and ran all over my skin. Shee-it.
The middle of Eleanor & Park goes a little slack, I think because the book has an almost claustrophobic focus on the two of them. It’s not that the supporting cast is weak – I think Rowell can pull off some very concise character work when she does it – but, as I said, the focus is pretty tight. I can dig why in some ways – the novel is called Eleanor & Park, and the claustrophobia mirrors the ant-covered feelings of young love – but I think it weakens the motivations. Eleanor’s siblings could be better fleshed out, especially the brother closest to her age. They would have had more of a thing, I think. Her school friends also don’t factor like they should. Also, if you hate eye-gazing and romantic love, you should probably steer clear of this novel. Both those things make me itch, but I didn’t mind them here, fwiw.
Two things: I don’t know if I would have loved this story if I didn’t love an Eleanor, and if I hadn’t been a kiddo in the late 80s. I don’t know if any of this 80s stuff would figure to someone born in 1986. (Who would be the young adult in the target audience, if my math isn’t disastrous.) Which is not to say that Rowell lays on the 80s with a trowel, not like a lot of half-assed fictions which use referents in lieu of character (cf.The Wedding Singer, et al.) Even then, I don’t know that this difference between the Smiths and Sex Pistols (who Eleanor hates) would mean anything at all. My musical understandings of the era are completely weak – I recently, embarrassingly identified the Guns N Roses album “Appetite for Destruction” as “Welcome to the Jungle” (I know, right?) – but I had enough cousins, ex-boyfriends, older brothers and ambient whatever to know precisely what that all meant, even if I’m shit for titles.
But I did have an Eleanor, and even a Park less so. I had a mid-80s upbringing in a Midwestern town with the same stupid racial and class divisions, with the same stupid neighborhood ins-and-outs. I totally get Eleanor and Park and everyone they know. As a first novel, I don’t think that Rowell is speaking to anything but the choir though; she isn’t explaining the neighborhood lingo to the outsiders. Which is fine in some ways: fuck you assholes for not getting it. But it narrows the audience for sure, and I want to gesture to other book by Ms Rowell, Attachments, which runs this Midwestern claustrophobia with more adroitness and expansion.
My Eleanor did not have her story work out like this Eleanor at all. My Amy’s young life was hard and unsparing and cruel. So it both hurt and staunched the wound a bit to see an Eleanor find someone like Park. It was like watching an alternate history, one where the neighborhood wasn’t a barrel of crabs who would drag you under just because they were drowning as well. I kind of want to send a carefully folded letter to Ms Rowell (can I call you Rainbow?) with a sloppy, earnest entreaty for her to be my friend? Check this box. Please. I am in love with her for giving my Eleanor a Park. Maybe it’s hopelessly romantic, but it’s absolutely the sweetest thing, and I thank her for it with all my heart. <3