Winner of the BookBrowse 2013 Best YA Book Award
If Eleanor & Park, the debut novel by Rainbow Rowell, were a song, it would be a punk rock song, no question. John Holmstrom, the founding editor of Punk magazine once said that punk rock was "rock and roll by people who didn't have very much skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music." And this pretty much sums up the teenagers, Eleanor and Park. They are outcasts in their own unique ways and as such they don't have much "skill" in the relationship department but what they both do have is incredible passion and the deepest need to express it. Sounds kind of like punk rock at least by Holmstrom's definition. To take the metaphor just a little bit further, Eleanor and Park embody both the nihilistic (think the Sex Pistols' "No Future") and the utopian (think the Clash's Joe Strummer's assertion that "punk rock is meant to be our freedom") sides of punk. The teens' relationship is destined to swerve and spin and dangerously careen into a cliff but, at the same time, it is a hopeful, bare, and desperately truthful testament to love in the state of Nebraska.
The story is chock full of references to bands and their songs. Songs are, in fact, how Eleanor and Park meet. They are on the school bus, forced to sit together after Eleanor is shunned by every other student and Park is too shy to tell her he wants to sit alone. After many days of no eye contact and no conversation, and after Park notices song lyrics on Eleanor's notebook, he "took his Walkman out of the pocket of his trench coat and popped out his Dead Kennedys tape. He slid the new tape in, pressed Play, then carefully put the headphones over her hair. He was so careful, he didn't even touch her." Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, the two begin to talk about music, form a friendship, and eventually fall in love.
I wondered, as I read further and further into the book, if contemporary teens would know all the bands and songs that Rowell references. She drops tons of names and titles, and they are all from the 1970s and '80s (the book is set in the '80s). But perhaps punk rock and its successors post punk and alternative rock and new wave are timeless (I think it could be successfully argued that all music falls into that wonderful category of being timeless and of-the-exact-moment all at the same time.) Also iTunes has made music extremely accessible, and Pandora has made finding new music simple. Regardless, most people at most times can relate to stories of unlikely lovers, first love found and first love lost. Eleanor & Park is this kind of story.
It is also a well-written one. Rowell alternates between Eleanor and Park's voices, sometimes giving the reader a wide view into one of the teens' home life or class at school and then switching to give a view into the other's, and sometimes changing points of view so rapidly that the reader is offered almost simultaneous insight into both their thoughts and feelings.
"Eleanor When she saw Park standing at the bus stop on Monday morning, she started giggling. Seriously, giggling like a cartoon character
when their cheeks get all red, and little hearts start popping out of their ears
It was ridiculous.
Park When he saw Eleanor walking toward him on Monday morning, Park wanted to run to her and sweep her up into his arms. Like some guy in the soap operas his mom watched. He hung onto his backpack to hold himself back It was kind of wonderful."
Rowell's use of fast transitions and repetition works. The reader can sense Eleanor's and Park's separate points of view, but also the sameness of them too. The ways they are meant for one another become clear to the reader, even when they themselves can't see it. And in the moments that they do well, the reader gets to truly feel that connection too.
There were times when I was ahead of the story. I knew what was going to happen and the writing felt predictable. And usually I was right, which I didn't like. But then sometimes I was wrong; Rowell would throw a slight curve into the arc of the story, and I eagerly continued to read. After having time away from the story, this sense of predictability has faded though. And the raw, true depiction of love has stayed. This happens, sometimes, after I read a book, and it is a good reminder that some stories need time to settle before their ultimate resonance can emerge.
In the end, I had a deep sense of who Eleanor and Park were as individual notes and as a song. A punk rock song. A little dissonant, a little loud, but a song I wanted to sing along with, one of those songs that gets under my skin and matches the beat of my own heart.
I recommend Eleanor & Park to teens who want a punk rock love story, and to everyone who ever remembers their first love.
This review is from the March 6, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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