Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
My fiancee mocks the shit out of me for being what she calls “emo.” How I am a sucker for a sad love story. How I love watching two lost ships find each other, how I have an affinity for sadbastard music, how I get wistful.
Rainbow Rowell just nails this shit to the fucking fence and does a dance around it. Eleanor & Park is the story of two misfits in Omaha, in highschool in 1986, who begrudgingly find each other and save each other. It is heartbreaking. It is so perfectly, desperately, awfully split your soul asunder.
Park’s a half-Korean kid who manages to just stay out of the gunsights of the popular kids. He’s not friends, but he’s not a target as much. Eleanor is a new kid, a voluptious redhead who dresses in men’s shirts and ties, with magpie like accoutrements hanging off her. She instantly gets branded with the name Big Red, and instead of being some sort of afterschool specialy freespirit, she suffers the slings and arrows of life. Her life is terrible.
Rowell makes Eleanor’s life hell, dodging and weaving through cliched landmines like Mr. Toad on a wild ride, while still taking serious emotional shrapnel. She has been gone for a year. Not because she was institutionalized or a suicide attempt or prison. Because her stepfather kicked her out and that’s how long it took for her mother to reclaim her. Her stepfather doesn’t molest her. But it’s so much worse. Her little siblings are also embroiled in this mess. But they aren’t dickensian waifs fighting together, but potential threats.
Park’s mother dotes on him, Park’s father forces him to learn stick and taekwondo so as not to be a pussy. His Irish grandparents live next door. Park listens to The Smiths and Black Flag and Joy Division. He coasts through life, until he meets Eleanor.
Their love story is so well-constructed. That desperate teen love. That desperation to keep it secret, to themselves, to not become a target because of what’s going on around them. Stolen kisses, hunger, mixtape gifts, agreeing, making disagreements adorable, being measured by the other people in your love’s life. It’s so fucking well done. Even the ending, especially the ending, is such a punch in the chest, that gasping for breath you can only feel if you’ve been there. I think I prefer Rowell’s teen writing to her adult, but that’s like voting between which kinds of pizza toppings you prefer. It’s all good, sometimes it’s a little better.