Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press
Expected publication: March 2013
Previously published in the UK by Orion in April 2012
Digital copy for review kindly provided by the publisher.
“It’s not like any other love – this one is different, because it’s us…”* Naturally I have to use lyrics from The Smiths to discuss Rainbow Rowell’s eloquent forthcoming novel. After all, imagine my delight over finding this quirky story set in Omaha, Nebraska during the 1980s (an especially good decade for cartoons) about two teens slowly falling in love over comics, the maudlin sounds of Morrissey and Joy Division, and a shared sense of being completely out of sync with the world around them.
Park has always been somewhat of an outsider in the Flats - his musical tastes, predilection for X-Men and Alan Moore, and biraciality (he’s half-White/half-Korean) sets him apart from his classmates. His pseudo-friends, the oafish Steve, and his mean little girlfriend, Tina, find Park curious. Sure they tease him, good-naturedly, but deep down they’re confounded by him, and in Tina’s case, definitely attracted, too. Enter Eleanor.
Eleanor’s bright red hair, and her off-beat fashion makes her the target of ridicule on her first day of school. On the surface, Eleanor reminded me of Andie Walsh (played by Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink. Like Andie, Eleanor outwardly appears stoic, quietly enduring the jeers and taunts; inwardly, she’s self-conscious, and the choices she makes aren’t always dictated by a need to go against the grain. Kicked out the year before by her abusive stepfather, Eleanor is just returning home, uncertain of everything and everyone around her.
When they first meet, Park is taken aback by Eleanor – his reaction partly stems from how his peers perceive her. Even though he knows he’s different from his them, he doesn’t want to be ostracized. Park grudgingly lets Eleanor sit next to him on the bus. Rowell builds up their relationship ever so slowly - moving from the mundane details into deeply emotional territory. In many contemporary stories, love swoops in almost too quickly, and that’s largely because we live in a culture of immediacy, demanding instant gratification. Rowell’s novel is soporific – sure there are nightmarish moments (especially Eleanor’s family life), but their romance truly feels dreamlike – like a paused moment in time. While their connection has all the bright intensity of an indie love song, it’s clear to readers that Eleanor & Park won’t go the distance. Not because love isn’t enough, but because love doesn’t always conquer all.
Rowell intercuts the romance with poignant dialogue about Park’s feelings about his Korean identity –sadness over being misunderstood by his white father, and insecurity over Eleanor’s attraction to him. In a particularly telling scene, Park tells Eleanor, “Look at M*A*S*H. The whole show takes place in Korea, and the doctors are always flirting with Korean girls, right? But the nurses don’t use their R & R to go to Seoul to pick up hot Korean guys. Everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls” (Location 2824 – Kindle). When Park tells Eleanor that he doesn’t understand what it means to be Korean, she asks, “Does it matter?” (Location 2838 – Kindle) It’s not such a minor question, considering that Park spends a significant amount of time analyzing all the dissimilarities between himself and his father, including, racial differences. Eleanor’s Danish heritage is revealed in a violent scene in which her drunken stepfather hurls a bowl of risalamande (Danish rice pudding – traditionally served during Christmas) against the wall. Eleanor’s Danishness is a wistful reminder of how things were before her mother married an abusive man; it’s not surprising that she wonders about the importance of one’s cultural background.
Rowell writes with brilliant clarity, expertly using alternating voices to draw readers into Eleanor and Park’s world. If you’re looking for a happy ending neatly tied up with a bow, this novel doesn’t provide that. Rather, Eleanor & Park’s appeal stems from its stark realism, and the sense that this story could happen to anyone.
*Hand in Glove by The Smiths