children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
But to be perfectly honest, I am a crier, and that may not be my most compelling argument for this disturbingly beautiful novel. I agree, however, with John Green:
But I have never seen anything quite like “Eleanor & Park.”…
“Eleanor & Park” reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.
Before discussing the novel more directly, I want to offer a few points of context.
First, I am a strong advocate of young adult literature, but must confess, I also tend to be disappointed by young adult literature. Too often, I believe, young adult novels ask too little of readers, slip into simplistic language and ideas, and drift into condescension. I must stress strongly here that eleanor & park is not one of those novels.
Second, quite by accident, I read eleanor & park immediately after reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. I will examine this further below, but both novels are powerful works that ask the reader to consider the fragility of adolescence and the often dangerous conditions in which adolescents and children live—both physically and psychologically dangerous.
And third, I knew I had fallen in love with eleanor & park when it immediately reminded me of Notting Hill (which oddly began running on cable just as I started reading Rowell’s novel; karma, I suppose). Eleanor and Park are fearful, hesitant to wade into love, similar to William and Anna in the film. And the first page of the novel describes a broken Park, confirming William’s fear:
William: The thing is, with you I’m in real danger. It seems like a perfect situation, apart from that foul temper of yours, but my relatively inexperienced heart would I fear not recover if I was, once again, cast aside as I would absolutely expect to be. There’s just too many pictures of you, too many films. You know, you’d go and I’d be… uh, well buggered basically.
I cannot say more emphatically or directly that I believe everyone should read eleanor & park; it is equally a novel for adolescents and adults. And for that reason I cannot separate my reasons why so I’ll simply offer here my arguments for dedicating some of your reading life, your heart, and your tears to this novel.
Rowell beautifully and elegantly frames scene by scene the budding and doomed love between Eleanor and Park, two adolescents joined by qualities that Rowell examines without romanticizing, without condescending. Eleanor and Park represent and share both gender-based and universal characteristics: low self-esteem and self-consciousness related to body image; nerdom linked to comic books, music, social awkwardness and anxieties, and fashion; and navigating the painful transition from childhood to adulthood that includes hurdles related to peer groups, family dynamics, and social institutions such as school.
And while I anticipate everyone crying while reading this novel, I can assure you that spontaneous laughter comes about in an equal amount. Rowell is perceptive and empathetic as a writer, but she is also damned funny: “It was the nicest thing she could imagine. It made her want to have his babies and give him both her kidneys” (p. 93).
Again, I think anyone who loves to read, who loves novels will love eleanor & park, but I also have some more targeted suggestions.
If you are a parent (or expect to be some day) or a teacher (or expect to be some day), Rowell reminds us about the power—both positive and negative—of the adults in the lives of children and adolescents. As I noted above, The Virgin Suicides is a disturbing portrait of the tragic consequences of the misguided home, the overbearing parents.
While Eugenides’s novel is focused, Rowell invites the reader into two homes that serve as complex and nuanced narratives about how difficult parenting is—especially for Eleanor’s family because of the weight of poverty and the frailties of her mother joined with the inexcusable terror of her mother’s second husband. Park’s family is also complex, but there are moments of real kindness, change, and just-plain-real-life in Park’s home that serve to put Eleanor’s challenges in stark relief.
Rarely are things or people all evil or all angel (think about Tina in the novel when you read), but the impact of parents on their children is central to why parents and teachers must read this novel.
And while the school is somewhat less defined or fully developed in the novel, school and teachers share another burden along with the parents. Yes, there is terror and cruelty in school for Eleanor, but there are moments of real tenderness and kindness (DeNice and Beebi are wonderful friends for Eleanor) that serve to avoid the typical portrayal of schools in young adult works (think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
“Damn, damn, damn,” [Eleanor] said. “I never said why I like you, and now I have to go.”
“That’s okay,” [Park] said.
“It’s because you’re kind,” she said. “And because you get all my jokes…” (p. 113)
My second targeted suggestion is nearly impossible to express so I am likely to wander.
When my daughter was a child, sleeping each night upstairs in a child’s daybed, I would often tip-toe up the stairs and into her room to stand next to her sleeping like a stone.
Like me, she radiates heat while sleeping, but my nighttime ventures were to take her tiny warm foot in my hand, squeezing it slightly, feeling the softest skin and the curve of her arch.
That is the only other experience for me that compares to holding the hand of the one you love. And that is the only way I can come close to my broad second recommendation.
If you love holding hands, you should read this book.
If you have the sort of anxiety that creeps into self-loathing and the fear that you are unlovable, you should read this book.
If you believe in or want to believe in soul-mates, you should read this book.
If your heart breaks at the sign of human kindness, you should read this book.
If you love adolescents and realize that some of being an adolescent is always with us (and should be) and that some of being a child is always with us (and should be)—if you regret that for most people “down they forgot as up they grew,” you should read this book.
She would never belong in Park’s living room. She never felt like she belonged anywhere, except for when she was lying on her bed, pretending to be somewhere else. (p. 127)
I suppose in the end what I want to say is that if you are fully aware of what it means to be a human and you are determined to cling to the dignity of being fully human for yourself and everyone else, you should read this book because it is a beautiful reminder, a powerful confirmation that creeps into you bone-deep like the love you have for that one person who also resides there in your bones forever.