Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: Eleanor & Park

Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Young adult, romance
My Rating: ★★★★(3.5/5 stars)


A tale of two misfits filling each other's gaps, like shards of a broken trinket that would form a unique piece when they collide. Clichéd as it may be, this Symposium-ish love is what I am a terrible sucker for, especially when it is served with a hefty measure of bittersweetness.

I figured this is what Eleanor & Park is all about when I got myself a copy. The first time I heard of it, there was a clang of jackpot combination in my mental slot machine: misfits, heartbreak, music, and general geekery. Basically all elements I've always enjoyed reading about. A little bit of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist popped in my head, but for some weird reason I hope the book would trudge along the same roads as The Solitude of Prime Numbers. It was Airiz-magnet. I cannot think of a reason not to pick it up.

The story: Eleanor is the new girl in school. Clumsy, overweight, and in possession of one wild bird's nest of red curls, everybody sees the Bully Bull's Eye target on her back the moment she steps on the bus. Park is the "weird Asian boy" who keeps to himself and is the only one who (stingily) offers Eleanor a seat, just to cut off their classmates' antics. In the succeeding mornings—with douses of good music and heaps of comic books—the six-inch space between them depletes and finally disappears, giving birth to young love.

Many readers seemed to have cried over portions of this book. So while reading, I was continuously bracing myself for a blow that would send me weeping. It did not come. There was no big disappointment, however. The book felt a lot lighter than I expected, except that it was not the sort you would think of if you want a feel-good beach read. It carries a gritty heaviness with it—palpable but not overly obtrusive to the tale's lithe nature, affecting but not so much it could weigh your emotions down to notches of near-depression. I actually think this is a good blend.

I liked how Rainbow Rowell built up the characters. She let the readers see Eleanor’s and Park’s insecurities, fantasies, and darkest secrets—even those thoughts that do not make such sense but enter our craniums anyway—in details that I can only describe as sincere. She efficiently illustrated how these teens shaped themselves around the changes when they became involved with each other’s worlds. I think the development was a little slow but noticeable.

The book is divided into parts alternately focusing on the two main characters, labeled with their names. Sometimes a part only contains four words, sometimes more than six pages. Regardless of their length, Rowell showed off her way with words in them. I like the powerful ones: “He’d stopped trying to bring her back…she only came back when she felt like it, in dreams and lies and broken-down déjà vu.”
There are hilarious ones, deep ones, sad ones, and ultra-foulmouthed ones. But my favorite are the subtlest ones, when the author dials down to her simplest descriptions. I like how Rowell dropped delicate hints about the blooming relationship of the characters. For instance:

Park was just her height, but he seemed taller.

Eleanor’s eyelashes were the same color as her freckles.

They do not say much, providing no space for sappiness; they were pretty much just observations. Still, I think they are a nice real-life-like hint. Ever realized we only notice small details about someone when we are growing closer to that person? Not just in a romantic way, either. And then look at these:

The first time he’d held her hand, it felt so good that it crowded out all the bad things. It felt better than anything had ever hurt.

Eleanor’s hair caught fire at dawn. Her eyes were dark and shining, and his arms were sure of her. The first time he touched her hand, he’d known.

Just a few words, but you could tell how far they have gone from the first “parts” I wrote there. Just a few words, but you know they contain so much.

Plot-wise, it is easy to see that Eleanor & Park is not a new story…and the author knows it. The book itself knows it. The tale is like a person who knows who she is and does not bother trying to be somebody else. Its intention is not to send out the message through megaphones of tragedies, unrequited romance, or happy-ever-afters. It The book is simply a reminder. It wants to remind the readers that love comes in a hurt-and-bliss package; that it takes more than just three words to make it work; and that sometimes, when the universe tells us it will not work at all, we can be willing to turn against it and prove it wrong.

I make no secrets about being always on the prowl for something new, and it was books like this that remind me there is no need for absurd gimmicks for a story to stand out. A wonderful irony presents itself in the character of Eleanor, whose weirdness snags a lot of unwanted attention. Zero in on that and you will see that the book’s individuality seems to be embedded in her character, too: she is what she is, and she will not change herself to appease the prying world. And in doing just that, she grabbed the interest of Park the same way this book brings out admiration from readers who unwittingly searchers for the treasure in this “ordinary” piece of lit.

I liked Eleanor & Park a lot, but I cannot consider it one of the bests out there. Not that it was trying to be. 3.5 stars for a good read!

(Not-so-important PS: I wish music was involved in a deeper way, and not just in a “she would definitely love this” way. There was so much a mixtape or a record could do.)

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