One extraordinary love.
Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.
Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep her promises…Park.
Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds–smart enough to know that true love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. (Add to Goodreads)
This is actually the first time I’ve read the blurb for Eleanor & Park–and looking back, I figure that’s a good thing. A teacher sent the book home with my sister over Thanksgiving break, and I’d heard good things about it.
At first, I didn’t plan on reading the whole thing. I was curious about all the hype, but I’m kind of an anti-fan of romances, so I just wanted to duck my head in and then back away again. But I loved the voice–it’s 3rd person, but still manages to pull off a casual, conversational style that usually only comes with 1st person–enough to keep reading.
Then I came to an exchange between Eleanor and her English teacher, who wants to know why she doesn’t seem invested in Romeo and Juliet. Said English teacher insists that the whole thing is sad–you know, a tragedy–and Eleanor maintains that it isn’t:
“But [Shakespeare]’s so obviously making fun of them…. It was ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight. If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline…. It’s Shakespeare making fun of love.”
Suddenly, I felt much more optimistic about my odds of liking this book.
And honestly, even though it’s a romance, some of it worked for me–because you know from page one that it’s an ill-fated romance. In a way, it’s a 1986 version of (500) Days of Summer, just not quite as bitter, with the quirky adult leads swapped out for quirky, loser teenagers. Heck–now that I think about it, both couples even like The Smiths.
That leads me to another fun aspect of the book–all the pop culture references. Really, besides the fact that there are no cell phones and gas is cheap, it’s easy to read this and forget that it’s set in the 80s–except for the music. And it isn’t just name-dropped: in Eleanor & Park, music is important enough that it feels like a natural extension of the story, like a character or its own setting. Music isn’t just a way to pass the time–in a way, it’s a lifeline for the two leads, in two different but related ways, and it influences who they are and who they want to be.
I think the dual narration works well, too. Sometimes the POV switches after a complete chapter, and sometimes it jumps back and forth several times within the same chapter. The POV is always clearly labeled, so it doesn’t get confusing, and I liked that it wasn’t restrained to following a narrator for a set amount of time.
More than the relationship between the two leads, though, I enjoyed Park’s relationship with his family. He has a much more stable home life than Eleanor–which, granted, isn’t saying much. His parents met when Park’s Irish American veteran dad was serving overseas and met Park’s Korean mom, and Park’s identity is very much tied up in those two different cultures: how they blend, how they clash. He also takes after his mom in a lot of ways, while his giant younger brother takes after their dad, so there’s plenty of room for family drama. I would’ve liked to see Park’s dynamic with his brother get explored a little more, but his relationships with both parents feel real and fleshed out. At the end of the day, they’re also always there for Park, which is a fresh change from the absentee parenting abounding in YA.
The story hits all sorts of notes, from lighthearted discussions about how many telepaths the X-Men really need to that bittersweet ending promised on page one. It deals with important issues, like Park’s struggles with identity and Eleanor’s messed up, crumbling home life, without getting too bogged down with them. Ultimately, I’m glad I accidentally gave it a chance. 4/5 stars.