*** Spoiler alert. You have been warned, as always. ***
On a lovely afternoon where I accidentally bought four books from Chapters despite insisting I wouldn’t buy anything, a copy of Eleanor & Park fell into my hands.
Not literally. I picked it up and Jacq insisted I buy it and boy am I glad I did.
I’d previously read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl and quite liked it, but Eleanor & Park was magical. Set in 1986, Eleanor & Park is the story of how two people from incredibly different worlds come to learn that life cannot always stop you from getting what you want from it. Eleanor is a new girl at Park’s school. She’s everything Park doesn’t want to be. She’s big, she’s loud, her clothes are bright and attention-grabbing. Park just wants to be left alone. She has no choice but to sit beside him on the bus, and he has no choice but to pay attention to her. Their relationship develops through a mutual love of music, with Park making Eleanor mixtapes and slowly, slowly, he starts to see beauty in every single jarring thing about her.
I don’t know about you, but I was really tiring of the whole ‘new girl moves to new school and doesn’t realise how beautiful she is until hottest jock/player/musician/strong silent writer guy falls in love with her and she gets a makeover’ storyline that was playing out across a lot of YA. It works in some cases, but for the most part, in a contemporary, it’s unrealistic. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, so it’s unlikely that every new girl that moves to a school is a YA vision of angelic wonder. Eleanor was never described as beautiful, yet Park sees her ‘imperfections’ as beautiful. He truly loves every inch of her, from her facial expressions to her clothes to the way she smells. In a way it was an endearing tale that describes what love is really like for people. In so many ways, relationships in YA are romanticised to seem like both parties need to be perfect, or that one person has to be damaged but can be saved by the love of the stoic beautiful man hero. Or whatever. With Eleanor & Park, the stark contrast between their lives is something one doesn’t come across very often in YA, but that is an authentic representation of things that often go on behind closed doors.
Eleanor is loud. Not verbally; she is a physically loud person. She is violently red-haired, she wears odd clothes, and her family have a reputation around town. Her mother and father separated, Eleanor’s life has been torn apart by her mother’s new boyfriend, Richie. Kicked out of her family home for a year, she’s invited back to Richie’s new house in a new town and is trying to get her head around the fact that her siblings, who once hated Richie with as much vitriol as she did, now call him ‘Dad’. The house is small and her and her siblings are forced to share a bedroom. The bathroom has no door and Eleanor is terrified of bathing while Richie is home. She has nothing. They have nothing. Her mother tries her hardest to keep the kids away from Richie when he comes home, but he’s an alcoholic with a serious temper problem. It’s a story that’s probably repeated in homes across the world behind closed doors. It’s a story that is representative of hundreds, if not thousands, of school kids who are going home to abusive families. Who are struggling with a parent who is unable to get a family out of that situation. Who know that what is happening is wrong, but are too young to feel as though they can change it.
To top it all off, Eleanor is bullied relentlessly in school. Somewhat innocuous insults, like Big Red, are thrown at her on a daily basis, but her clothes were stuffed into a toilet and her books have disgusting phrases written on them on a regular basis. My heart broke for her on numerous occasions, particularly as she couldn’t listen to music whenever she wanted simply because she couldn’t afford batteries for her Walkman. Sometimes the simplest pleasures in life are being able to put on a 3 minute song and be transported somewhere else. Music is escapism. Until Park, Eleanor didn’t have that when she needed it.
Park is part Korean, striking, attractive, quiet… and wants to be invisible. He has friends but he tries his hardest to be unseen. He tries his hardest to not let anyone be interested in him. He’s small and slight and a constant disappointment to his veteran father. Nothing Park does is good enough. His younger brother is turning out to be a carbon copy of his father, which only serves to increase his father’s disappointment in him. He can’t drive a car out of fear of getting it wrong – a paradox which makes things worse for him. He feels like an outcast in a school full of kids who seem to just want to be liked by him. both Park and Eleanor are living in difficult home situations – arguably incredibly different, yet are enough to demonstrate that just because a house has two parents still together, financial security and warm meals, does not mean that everything going on at home is okay. The contrast between them both is probably what drew them to each other in the first place. It’s no secret that I am a bitter old lady and usually hate mushy romantic stories, but in the case of Eleanor & Park, the story is one of a first love that is so much more than just finding the perfect person at age 16 to spend the rest of your life with. It is a story of two people coming together and finding both themselves and love in a place they would each never have thought to have searched for love in. It is a love that is not so much about the permanency, but about the importance that it will hold in their lives as they grow older. It is a love that came at a perfect time for them both.
I guess the most important aspect of Eleanor & Park for me was the ending. How it transpires that Eleanor was right to be terrified of Richie walking in on her. How he had been watching her all this time. How he was, through and through, a predator and a terrible person. How it seems as though the family got help, but we will never know for sure if Eleanor’s mom ended up back in another situation like that again. How it seems Eleanor is getting the things she deserves in life, despite the aching space in her heart where Park used to live. And the postcard. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t cry, because I definitely did.
Then I wept at the Malec episode of Shadowhunters. I had a weepy day that day. I think it’s easy to assume that the postcard said ‘I love you.’ or ‘I miss you.’ Or ‘I am sorry.’ From what we learned of Eleanor, it could’ve easily been an abstract three-word song reference. Whatever it was, whatever it said, the ending implies that life went on for both Eleanor and Park. Life goes on for everyone after high school. Life goes on for everyone after a first love. It is never the end. Maybe they’ll meet again in future. Maybe they’re married now, and have kids of their own. Who knows? Does it matter? Stories with ambiguous endings are a perfect way for readers to ask themselves ‘what happened next?’ and to give life to the characters in whatever way they choose. I’d choose to think they remained friends, and maybe got a chance to go to the same college. I’d choose to think they gave their relationship another go. Whether that worked out or not is unimportant. It’s having the power to choose as an adult, when you don’t have that power as a kid, that’s important.
Eleanor & Park was a New York Times Bestseller, and it’s easy to see why. Rainbow Rowell crafted a perfect reminder that love does not always have to be forever for it to be important.