Monday, April 21, 2014

"Eleanor & Park" by Rainbow Rowell

Though I've mostly given up YA novels, Eleanor & Park made "best of" lists so often that I gave in. And, truthfully, I'm not sure whether I should have, because although Eleanor & Park is sweet and touching with genuine teenage emotions, it is also so heartbreaking and bittersweet that I'm still wiping away tears.

On the outside, Eleanor & Park is your typical misfit-meet-misfit romance. Park is half-Asian, and though he's not actively bullied, he mostly tries to stay under the radar. Eleanor is big with loud clothes and hair and a terrible family situation--living in poverty with her four siblings and mother under an abusive step-father. Park and Eleanor bond reluctantly over shared bus rides and comic books, but their relationship soon blossoms with an intensity neither 16-year-old has felt before.

It can be difficult to capture the intensity of first teenage love without making the romance come across as hokey, insincere, or cliche. But Rowell successfully navigates not only the strong emotions, but also the insecurities and doubts that everyone remembers. And she's especially adept as capturing just how magnified every moment, word, and touch is at that age. How electrifying it is when you first touch another person--and are touched back--even if such touch is not sexual. Heck, I still vividly remember seeing a movie on a date at 16 and being so distracted by the fact that my elbow was grazing his on the armrest that I couldn't pay attention to the film's plot.

Rowell's novel also reflects the difficult dichotomy of any relationship. On the one hand, it's an intensely personal and private bond between two people. On the other hand, any relationship that lasts has to exist in the wider world--the world of families, friends, and outside obligations. We like to believe that if our personal bond is strong enough, nothing else matters, but that's simply not the case.

I'll give that Park may be a little too perfect--a bit too much of a fantasy realized for a real 16-year-old boy--but Eleanor is so perfectly messy that her characterization makes up for it. The book may cross certain adults' lines in terms of its language (even though it's nothing that teenagers haven't heard already), but I think its authenticity and belief in goodness will win most over.

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