Saturday, October 05, 2013

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Technically, this is a Young Adult novel. Maybe I'm not remembering well, but YA wasn't as sophisticated back when I was reading it. This is a lovely, carefully observed novel, about the way in which we move from strangers to intimates, and vice versa.

Eleanor is the new kid in school. Her mother has recently remarried, her step-father is a violent and controlling drunk, her biological father has done a slow fade from their lives. Eleanor has four younger siblings, and they all share a single small room in a tiny house in Omaha Nebraska.

Park is half-Korean, exotic and out of place in Omaha, sensitive to his oddity. Even his younger brother looks whiter than he does. He hides behind headphones and comic books on the noisy bus ride to school.

The two of them meet when Park takes pity on the new girl, and offers to share his seat on the bus.

Slowly, Rowell builds their budding friendship and growing attraction. Most of their interaction occurs on the bus at first, although they share English and History classes. It is the careful, delicate shifting of their relationship that is the book's amazing talent. Awkwardly, they maintain a six inch space between them, studiously ignoring each other, but eventually finding things that connect them. Eleanor finds herself reading Park's comics over his (metaphorical) shoulder. Park notices the names of songs and bands written on her notebooks.

These characters are placed in families that are also drawn with the same careful specificity. Eleanor's home life bursts with the details of poverty--the bathroom attached to the kitchen, with only a curtain to offer privacy, the safety pins that hold her clothes together since there is no money for new ones. The criminally cheap food her mother feeds them--beans and rice mostly, and the violence that causes all five of the children to learn to be still as statues as the fights happen. I fully believed in her misery and her resentful protectiveness of her siblings.

Park lives a more middle-class existence, with his own room, and only one brother. His father insists on the boys learning martial arts; his mother refuses to allow swearing or girlfriends. Park's house is run by his mother, and smells of potpourri. I liked how Park uncomplainingly went to his grandparents' house for Sunday dinner in nice clothes, he set the table, but he was still in conflict with his parents over his driving, his wearing eyeliner. He feels like a misfit, just differently than the ways Eleanor does. He also experiences Eleanor as not fitting in differently than she does. He thinks she is "trying too hard to be different" and is sensitive to what she wears in ways that she just doesn't seem to be. It makes for some interesting textures in their characterizations.

The book captures the ways teens try to find themselves in the context of their families--what do they accept as normal, what do they chafe against. Exquisitely Rowell describes the growth of the relationship: the electric kick of the first time you hold hands with someone, the fear of being awkward at kissing, the fear of meeting the family, the way you become desperate for some privacy so you don't have to enact your entire life in front of other people.

Some things don't quite ring true: the way that Eleanor and Park are quickly honest with each other feels a bit facile. They never seem to misunderstand each other. They spend a lot of time checking in on their feelings. "Are we okay?" "Are you okay?" "Are you mad at me?" they ask each other repeatedly, and it's not clear why they never feel comfortable enough in the relationship to stop asking that. I found myself doubting that 16 year olds in their first serious, proto-sexual relationship would be that aware of something outside their own feelings.

The plot? Well, there isn't much, which is exactly right. It's about how Eleanor and Park develop their relationship in the context of high school culture, and that is really enough. There is some nasty pranking pulled on Eleanor--ostensibly by Tina, which isn't really well explained. I understand that as the new kid in school, the early gym class pranks might have been pulled, although that one seemed disproportionately nasty (maxi pads colored with red marker stuck all over her gym locker) unless you believe that Eleanor was considered a threat of some kind to Tina. Also not sure why Tina would steal all Eleanor's clothes out of her locker as late into the year as that happened. In retrospect, it felt like a plot device to get Park to see her in her gym suit, kicking their physical relationship up a notch.

Personally, I wish Rowell had dropped Eleanor's body shame a bit. I mean, she's got red hair and untamable curls, she's the new kid, she's wicked poor, gets her clothing from Goodwill, and has to wear that to shreds--isn't that enough? Did you have to make her obsess about feeling fat too? It's not like she gets much food, even, so it just feels like it's normalizing an incipient eating disorder/body dysmorphia.

Finally, there is the climax of the book. All throughout the book, nasty sexual messages have been showing up on Eleanor's books (which are covered with brown paper bags, which is exactly correct). She has been ignoring them, assuming they are by Tina and the Mean Girls. Can you spot the plot? Of course it isn't--it's her nasty rat-faced stepfather, and when she figures this out, she runs away from home. This is the end of Eleanor and Park, because the only place she has to go is to an uncle's house in Minneapolis. The threat was well done and completely credible to me--the way her stepfather insists on dominating family life, the casual cruelty and narcissism he displays, the way Tina turns out to be an ally when things get really serious.

The end of the book felt true--when Park drives Eleanor to her uncle's--it's an opportunity for them to be together and alone for hours, and yet, it's the end of their ability to be together. She isn't going to be able to come back, he's not going to be able to follow her. That bitter experience that the timing is just wrong--if they were only a year or two older, they would be able to go to college together, or possibly elope (which Tina does with her boyfriend in the coda). But by virtue of being just 16, they have to separate. Is it possible to sustain a long distance relationship at that age? Is it wise? Does it hurt too much? Do they have a choice, given how strong their feelings for each other are?

It's a good book. It's worth the read. I would recommend it to my own teen daughters, if this was the kind of book they liked right now. It has a lot to discuss about poverty and privilege, and about respectful relationships. Definitely recommended.