"Set over the course of one school year in 1986, Eleanor & Park is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under."
This is the description of ELEANOR & PARK (St. Martin's Griffin, 2013) from the author's website. This is the first book I've read by Rainbow Rowell and it has left me desperately, utterly, in love with this author. I will now inhale every word she puts to paper. Done. Game over.
I just had a feeling, both when I heard the buzz about the book and when I heard the uproar of thousands of reader's voices raised in protest when the author was "disinvited" from a school visit. I guess some parents were upset that there were cuss words (220 of 'em). Well, yes, there are cuss words. More than a few F-bombs, actually. But honestly, if this is what you're going to get hung up on, then you've totally missed the point. This story is so amazingly authentic, it would be less so without the language. Kids talk this way — kids from good homes, kids from broken and abusive homes — and if you think they don't, I'm sorry but you're in denial.
So once you get over the fact that there's swearing (and please, get over it because if you don't you'll miss out) you'll see what ELEANOR & PARK is all about. It's a story about first love between two 16-year-old misfits. One that completely captures the intensity and joy of discovering what it's like to share your heart with someone. For Eleanor, it opens a door to a whole new existence. For Park, it becomes the catalyst for growing up.
Thrown together as bus-mates, the two find common ground over music and comics. Rowell gives us the story from both Eleanor and Park's perspectives, perfectly capturing the easy misunderstandings and slow realization of feelings. In fact, this is done so masterfully, it's like you're right in it with them, not just watching it unfold.
Difficult, painful moments, especially in Eleanor's story, drag you deeper. Like Park, you just want to save her from awfulness that's no fault of her own. Rowell doesn't give in to the temptation, however, but gives Eleanor a quiet strength that offsets her intense vulnerability.
Park falls for Eleanor (at first) despite her odd appearance and then because of it. His protectiveness is so endearing, you can't help but love him just for standing up for her. We love Eleanor as he does, for who she really is, not for the kind of life she's been forced to lead. And in the end, when all he wants is to save her, we are right there with him. These are the kinds of characters who stay with you long after the story is finished.
I adored the 1985 Omaha, Nebraska setting, which Rowell captures in astounding clarity. From the record stores to the waterbeds to the hairstyles and clothes -- and the MUSIC! The Smiths. Elvis Costello. The Cure. I found myself wishing teen readers could experience the same nostalgia I was, but given the book's success, apparently that layer wasn't necessary for adoration. But it's icing of the most delicious kind.
My only negative came at the end -- mainly because I didn't want it to end but also because there was more of their story we don't get. Will there be a follow up to E&P? We can only hope.
E&P joins the company of books I believe EVERY teen should read. This is a rather lengthy list that includes 13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green, STORY OF A GIRL by Sara Zarr, and EVERYDAY by David Levithan, just to name a few. These books truly speak to today's kids, reaching them in ways books that continue to populate high school reading curriculums simply can't.
The Kirkus starred review for E&P recommends it for readers 14 - 18, which I'd agree with -- it's definitely a high school story. Her recent release FANGIRL will absolutely skip ahead to the top of my to-be-read list. With another book LANDLINE coming out next year, we have a lot of Rainbow Rowell to look forward to -- something that makes this reader blissfully happy.