Never judge a book by its cover.
It’s always too easy to pick up a book, read the blurb and jump to an assumption whether you’ll like it or not. Every so often, it’s worth trying something a little different, as sometimes you can find a hidden treasure. I consider Eleanor & Park to be such a discovery. It’s easy enough to look at the cover and dismiss it as another chick-lit romance book, perhaps along the line of a Gossip Girl or similar, but that would be underestimating Rainbow Rowell’s writing prowess. That’s not to say that I’m not a fan of Gossip Girl or Dawson’s Creek or trashy teen drama like that, as they are certainly guilty pleasures of mine, but Eleanor & Park is in a whole different ballpark and far beyond anything they could ever offer. This is a book that presents romance in a real and believable manner, placing it in a tangible environment and giving us relatable and fallible characters in the titular couple.
I say ‘couple’ but they would struggle to say the same for most of the book. One of the most likeable things about Eleanor & Park is the way they scuffle and squirm with their feelings for one another. Eleanor is a natural loner, always going against the grain and having learned to stick up for herself and be responsible for her own existence. This comes from her less-than-perfect family life at home, where she has been kicked out of home before, and still suffers the wrath of her mother’s horrendous boyfriend. Park on the other hand has the illusion of a perfect home life, with dependable and hard working parents, and as a Korean, his family is certainly different to that of Eleanor, which makes taking her home quite the experience.
It takes them a while to even get to that stage though. The tale of Eleanor & Park is anything but smooth, providing a roller-coaster of emotions for both of them to go through, as you would expect from any school kids. It’s something we can all relate to – being unsure about the world and those around you, and the pressures of having to cope with all these changes, inside and out. There are so many stories written about youngsters around this age, simply because there’s so much emotional source material to pull from. Whether it’s Eleanor’s insecurities over her weight, or Park’s differences as a person compared to the kids he hangs around with, there’s so much going on here under the surface that every reader will find something that they’ll be nodding their head in agreement about. Also the wonderful setting of the 1980s is something that I personally smiled at on many occasions, being an 80s kid and all, and that’s just another reason why you can’t dismiss Eleanor & Park as simply a teen book. Rowell nails the cultural references completely, and while they’ll go over the heads of many, there’ll be a lot of you that reminisce from cover to cover through music and comics and more.
At the heart, Eleanor & Park is of course a love story, but not just first love between people, but love of being a geek, of being an individual and of finding your place in the world. This is a story of discovery, of joy and sadness, and about perseverance and laughter. It’s about everything that we all struggle to find at that age, regardless of our upbringings or individual characteristics – we all had to find who we are, and some of us are still on that journey. Rowell has a grasp on humanity that gives her the voice of a generation, but it’s not just one generation but all of them. Her voice teaches us to carry on no matter what, to smile and laugh through the bad times, and to conquer whatever fears we may have. Above all else, Rowell wants everyone to be true to themselves and learn to love who they are, regardless of what others may say. Does it matter how Eleanor looks or what Park’s cultural background is or if they live together or apart? In the end, I’d say no, because love is there no matter what, and Rowell leaves us with a sense of hope and positivity.
In short, throw away the Young Adult label on Eleanor & Park, and be open to one of the geekiest and most inspirational books I’ve read in quite some time. Rowell might have a love of bad language, but beyond the f-words is a world of real ideas and emotions that will touch every reader that takes the journey. Highly recommended.
Eleanor & Park is out now and available from all good book stockists.