Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is the story of two misfits, Eleanor and Park who meet on a school bus one day.  The story takes place in 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska.  What was I doing in 1986?  Let's see, I was three years old and playing with dolls.

The story opens with Park on the school bus.  He notices the new girl-Eleanor coming down the aisle looking for a seat. No one wants to share a seat with her, so Park reluctantly offers his seat.  At first they don't talk to each other.  Eleanor refers to Park as stupid Asian kid, and Park thinks that Eleanor is weird.  Eleanor has red hair, heavy set, and wears decorated men's clothes.  Eleanor is not trying to make a fashion statement or act like a boy.  There is a reason for her abnormal wardrobe.

At first, the two characters avoid talking to each other.  Suddenly, Park breaks the ice by loaning his comics to Eleanor.  Soon he shares his music, and before you know it they bond over comics and music.  An unlikely friendship/relationship develops.  Eleanor and Park are smart enough to know that first loves almost never last, but they are willing to try anyway. Eleanor & Park is far from a light and fluffy young adult romance novel where everything works out nice and neatly for them in the end.

The novel deals with race, abuse, and poverty.  Eleanor's family is poor.  They only have one car, the kids including Eleanor have to share a room, and they have to buy their clothes at the thrift store. Eleanor can't even afford a toothbrush or batteries for her walkman.  To some readers, this fact alone may seem odd and unrealistic.  Some would be quick to say that she could have gone down to the dollar store to buy a toothbrush or pack of batteries for $1 or $2.  As the story unfolds, readers gain a better understanding of Eleanor's situation, and how poverty and abuse interact with each other. For Eleanor, having money is a luxury.

For example, Eleanor's biological father pays her to baby-sit.  When Eleanor returns home, Richie (stepfather) says that he's taking the family to the movies and he looks at Eleanor. To me, this indicated that Eleanor used her babysitting money to pay for it.  On another occasion, Richie gives her $50 for Christmas, but Eleanor gave it to her mother to buy groceries.

Home is supposed to be a safe haven, but for Eleanor, her siblings, and mom, they are constantly walking on eggshells and doing everything that they can to avoid offending Richie, especially Eleanor. Richie kicked Eleanor out for a year and she was forced to stay with acquaintances.  Since Eleanor's return, every moment in that house is terrifying.

Park is biracial-his mother Korean and his father is white. He is the only Asian student in the school and likely in the state of Nebraska. Park is popular but what sets him apart from the other popular kids is his taste in music and love for comics.  Park is not afraid to be seen with Eleanor a.k.a. Big Red by the other students.

Park introduces Eleanor to his family and they slowly embrace her. Eleanor begins spending time with Park at his house during the evenings. However, Eleanor lies to her family about where she is spending her time. Eleanor keeps Park a secret from her family. Eventually, her brothers and sisters find out. Then when Richie finds out, everything falls apart.

The novel takes you on an emotional roller coaster.  They bond over comics and 80's music. Since I love 80's music I thought that this was so cute. I understood most of the pop culture references.  Park doesn't care that Eleanor has crazy red hair or the fact that she doesn't look like Barbie.  As their relationship develops, you would have thought that they would be together forever, but that would have been fairy tale due to the circumstances.

When Eleanor returns home, she finds her closely guarded possessions-walkman, make up, comics, tapes, the grapefruit box, etc. destroyed and a very sick note from Richie written on the lid.  There were very sick notes written on her school books, but for a long time Eleanor thought that it was someone from school. This was all Richie's doing.  Eleanor knew that she had to get out of there.  It is not clear why Eleanor was kicked out a year ago, or if Richie actually sexually abused her.  In the novel, Rainbow Rowell indicated how Richie would "look at Eleanor."  Eleanor would make sure that she would take a bath before Richie got home; and her mom guarded the bathroom (due to lack of a door) if he was home.  Eleanor felt sick to her stomach when she saw her little sister sitting on Richie's lap when she returned home. These facts alone make me sick to my stomach.  After reconsidering these facts, he probably did.  Thankfully, Rainbow Rowell spared us from the details.

I wanted Eleanor and Park to stay together.  Park knew that he had to drive Eleanor to safety in Minnesota. After explaining the situation to his dad, he gave Park permission to go.  After Eleanor and Park's departure, their contact ceased. Park wrote numerous letters, while Eleanor struggled to write one.  The ending was sad, but at least Eleanor was in a safer environment. There will always be the hope that they would find their way back to each other.

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