Reviewed by Maggie: July 30, 2012
Published in UK April 12, 2012 by Orion
Published in US February 26, 2013 by St. Martin's Griffin
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Timing, as they say, is everything. I read most of Eleanor & Park while sitting by the pool and listening to Call Me Maybe... on repeat. This book though couldn't be further from a Carly Rae Jepsen song and I wondered if I would've enjoyed it more had I read it at a different time.
It's 1986. Eleanor is the new girl in school. She lives on the wrong side of the tracks, wears unstylish secondhand clothes on her larger than average body, and has flaming red hair. Basically, she is a walking target. From the minute she first steps on the school bus, she is heckled and called "Big Red." She can't even find a seat on the bus until the one Asian kid silently moves aside for her. Park is the son of an American soldier and a Korean woman. Being half-Korean puts an easy target on his back, but he's friendly enough with the popular kids to keep himself out of the crosshairs. He takes pity on the new girl, but instantly regrets it and hopes she doesn't take it as an overture. They slowly and silently open up to one another through Park's comic books. Eleanor reads them over his shoulder, Park realizes this and takes his time turning the pages. The volume on their silent connection eventually turns up and they begin to talk about comics and music and Shakespeare and Han Solo.
But it isn't all comics and mixtapes. While this is a love story, it isn't a light story. Eleanor has just started living with her mother, siblings, and abusive stepfather again after he kicked her out of his house. Everyone lives at Richie's mercy. He's their only source of income, as he's quick to remind them. Park, on the other hand, has a pretty close to perfect family. His parents still make out like newlyweds and they live next to his grandparents. The main issue is his relationship with his father, who calls him a pussy for not being able to drive stick.
I asked my friend to send me this book because I couldn't wait for the US release. Attachments, Rainbow Rowell's debut published novel, was one of my favorite books last summer. She actually wrote Eleanor & Park before Attachments, but sold it after. I make the distinction because Eleanor & Park feels more like a first novel. For example, there's a scene where our two leads are talking and Eleanor thinks,
"Park's eyes got wide. Well, sort of wide. Sometimes she wondered if the shape of his eyes affected how he saw things. That was probably the most racist question of all time."YA THINK? This passage though didn't make me reach for the That's Racist GIF mainly because it was so awkwardly placed. Eleanor thinks this then goes on talking about X-Men, but it doesn't have the effortless feel of, say, Jessica Darling, who you know says some shit.
The alternating points of view also highlight the lack of gray in the novel. Eleanor's family life is SO low while Park's family life is SO high. Eleanor doesn't even own a toothbrush thanks to her wicked stepfather, and Park is comparing his parents to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. While we're on the subject of Park's parents, they have an amazing, wonderful marriage... that I found completely unbelievable. I definitely appreciate minority characters, especially Koreans, but if you're going to use them, use the experiences they bring to the table too. You don't have to, but in the case of an Asian war bride in the Midwest in the 80s, not doing so just made it seem unrealistic.
Before you think I didn't like this novel, I really liked that the two main characters weren't your standard leads. Eleanor isn't some quirky but cute Molly Ringwald character, or someone who only sees herself as big and awkward. She IS big and awkward, and that's not the central storyline either. Park says of Eleanor,
"Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn't supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something."The way Park and Eleanor's relationship slowly unfolded and evolved was so well-paced. Behold the power of the mixtape! Their connection to one another was believable and sweet. The cover of the US edition is perfect:
Ready Player One would also enjoy this book. There are a ton of references to 80s bands and discussions about comics and Star Wars. I don't know who Boba Fett is and I missed the snap, crackle, pop of Attachments, but I think an audience would appreciate the low, steady beat of Eleanor & Park.
Rating: 3/5 stars.