Post-Reading: Eleanor & Park

Unlike I imagined, Eleanor & Park tells a fairly serious story. The painful moments are frequent and the happy moments are fleeting. The book’s cover, showing young protagonists listening to music through intertwined headphones, once again proves true that adage about judging and book covers.
Initially, I had thought there was far too much emphasis on the physical appearance of Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is fat, her hair is red and wild, freckles smother her skin, and holes litter her jeans. Park is half-Korean, short, skinny, and sometimes wears eyeliner. The reader is constantly reminded of these details. Given that the book is pretty short, it gave me the impression that physical traits saturate the story.
But at some point I finally thought, When was the last time I read a book, in particular a book driven by romance, in which the main characters are fat and/or Asian? Maybe Eleanor and Park’s physical traits come off so strongly because they are not carbon copies of attractiveness. If you visit Rainbow Rowell’s blog, she actually addresses questions like, Is Eleanor Fat? Or Does Eleanor Just THINK She’s Fat? and Why is Park Korean? Sadly, Rowell is obligated to answer such questions because she gets them from us readers all the time. Eleanor and Park are not idealized (read: thin, attractive, white) fictional characters. This kind of nonstandard beauty in books is rare and important, so if anything, it should be emphasized. Also, maybe it isn’t that physical appearances dominate the story, but that we are simply more sensitive to what is different. We are hyperaware of things only when there is something unusual about them.
I had also thought Eleanor’s homelife was far too abusive to simply be a backdrop in the story. Her alcoholic stepfather is a monster. She shares a closet-like room with four siblings. The neglect is horrifying to the point of distraction, that by the time Eleanor is on the school bus, it’s hard to be excited about her reading X-Men with a cute boy. I kept thinking Eleanor’s homelife has to be addressed, it has to be resolved.
But the terrible truth is that a difficult homelife can in fact simply be the backdrop of someone’s life. There is no resolving, there is only surviving, and Eleanor goes beyond survival. She finds love and connection and good despite her circumstance. I may have been too distracted to focus on Eleanor reading X-Men with Park, but Eleanor wasn’t. The story does not promise a happy ending, far from it. But it does promise readers that it can happen, it is possible for people to find good in a sea of bad.

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Eleanor & Park

“I never said why I like you, and now I have to go.”
“That’s okay,” he said.
“It’s because you’re kind,” she said. “And because you get all my jokes…”
“Okay.” He laughed.
“And you’re smarter than I am.”
“I am not.”
“And you look like a protagonist.” She was talking as fast as she could think. “You look like the person who wins in the end. You’re so pretty, and so good. You have magic eyes,” she whispered.

Eleanor & Park, p. 113
By Rainbow Rowell
Published 2013
Labels: Fiction, Quotes, YA, ,

Currently Reading: Eleanor & Park

I was poetically introduced to Eleanor & Park when I saw it displayed on the YA table at a quaint, local bookstore called Barnes & Noble. It was sitting alongside everything that John Green has ever breathed on. (Mr. Green also penned the The New York Times review for Eleanor & Park.) I liked the cover, the headphones intertwined to form an ampersand. I was then distracted by the bright blue emanating from the endless copies of The Fault in Our Stars and moved on.
Months later I read The Interestings, a story of six characters who meet at a summer camp under the haze of young talent. The story spans from their teenage years to their 50s, and sadly, many of them prove happiest as teenagers at a summer camp. Adulthood makes everything serious and complicated. While reading, I found myself continuously reminiscing to the beginning of the book, when everyone was young, secretly hopeful, and didn’t yet know what would happen with their lives. I wanted to focus on that single period in life, to be stuck in the amber of youth. Re-enter Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.
Eleanor & Park takes place over the course of a single school year. It is a love story between Eleanor, unkindly nicknamed Big Red by classmates, and Park, a comic book and music lover. They meet on the school bus. They fall in love. I’ve been promised a powerful read. Here’s to stories of the forever young.

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