Monday, August 26, 2013

A new favorite author (tears my heart out)

In the fall of 1986 I was a freshman in high school. I had braces, acne, insanely humongous glasses, and went to school decked out in horrid fashion choices (though to be fair, we all did. The 80’s are not known for their fab clothing styles). Regardless, I wasn't unhappy. I got good grades, I had a few good friends, and I had fun. Though not popular, I was liked (or at least tolerated). I remember being teased to a small degree, but I had learned by ninth grade to either make a joke of it or let it slide off my back like it didn't bother me, because most bullies bullied most when they got a big reaction. If I gave them nothing and they got bored. Sometimes they even laughed with me instead of at me. By 1986 all that was water under the bridge and I was on friendly terms with most of my class of 201 peers.

Eleanor’s experience at her new high school in 1986 is quite different. Eleanor lives in the Flats, a poor section of town where generations of families have marked their territory with dilapidated houses and rusting cars up on blocks in yards. As a newcomer, Eleanor would have stood out no matter what, but with her large bosom and larger red hair, coming to school dressed in men’s shirts and ties (often wrapped around her ponytail or wrist), Eleanor doesn't look like anyone else in the Flats. She tries to keep her head down, but she’s noticed. And one of the students who notices her is Park.

Park also lives in the Flats. He’s Korean American, which confuses most of the dimwits he goes to school with, who can’t tell the difference between Korean and Chinese. Park reads Sandman and X-Men comics, listens to The Smiths, and wishes the new girl hadn't sat next to him on the bus. But there wasn't anyone else who would give her a seat - not when seating had been set since the first day of the year. Not when she was new, and strange, and so...big. At least she’s quiet and doesn't try to talk to him. That would just be...awkward.

As the days pass, Eleanor continues to sit next to Park to and from school and slowly, ever so slowly, something begins to develop.

Eleanor doesn't want Park to know what goes on behind her front door. She wants to keep him separate from that - she wants Park to be a place she can escape from the rest of her life, even if it’s just for a few minutes or only in a Park-shaped space in her head. Park wants to know all of Eleanor. He wants to protect her from whoever is secretly leaving the raunchy, violently sexual suggestions on the covers of her schoolbooks. The notes that leave Eleanor shaking as she scribbles them out. Eleanor suspects Tina, the ringleader of popular girls who keep bullying her in gym and in the school hallways. Park insists Tina isn't like that. Park doesn't know what people are like when his back is turned. That’s why Eleanor doesn't turn her back on anyone.

I read this incredible novel on audiobook, and the readers truly brought this story to life for me. The novel is both beautiful and frightening. The first sentence put me on tenterhooks, purposefully setting an underlying unsettling tone for the rest of the novel. The development of Eleanor and Park’s relationship is slow and tentative and sweet in the middle of Eleanor’s abusive home life. Rowell has captured both the romance and the fear, evoking the emotions in the reader and making this a wonderful and difficult book to read. I highly recommend this book to adults and older teens. (Mature language; sexual content)

Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Audiobook read by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra. Teen fiction. 

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