We’re reading our way across America…one romance at a time.
Nebraska: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
When you think about it, Omaha is just about the last place you’d expect someone to set the heartbreaking story of a skinny sixteen-year-old half-Korean proto-New-Waver and the prickly, large-boned, wild-haired social outcast he comes to adore. I mean, Omaha. Mutual of Omaha! Corn! Football! The legendary Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack, and the River City Rodeo! These kids, they belong in New York or San Francisco. Chicago, maybe. Not in the heart of the Cornhusker State.
This is, of course, part of the point.
Set in 1986, Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park is a novel that captures the ups and downs of first love in all its intensity as experienced by two of the more offbeat characters you’ll encounter in literature. Sad it surely is, but also charming and optimistic. It’s a YA novel that adults can enjoy, and I definitely recommend it.
Park is sixteen, and while he’s not one of the popular kids, neither does he occupy the bottom rung of the social ladder, having been saved from complete pariah-hood by virtue of a week-long “relationship” with the prettiest girl in school back in junior high. He’s considered a bit eccentric at his school, with tastes that run more toward comic books and The Smiths than Cornhusker football and John Cougar Mellencamp. He’s also not averse to the occasional spot of guyliner, to the disgust of his ex-military father. But he’s getting along, more or less, until one day a new girl steps onto the school bus.
That girl is Eleanor, and she’s a hot mess. A large, rather sloppily-dressed redhead, she doesn’t look, talk, or act like the other girls. Of course – to his complete mortification – she sits next to Park. What he doesn’t realize, at least at first, is that she lives in hell – her abusive stepfather, Richie, threw her out of the house for a year (with the tacit consent of her beautiful, passive mother) and has only recently allowed her back; she shares a bedroom with four siblings, is forced to bathe in a bathroom with no door, has exactly zero privacy, and spends most of her time trying to stay out of Richie’s way. The kids at school are merciless. Apart from an aunt and uncle in St. Paul – which might as well be Jupiter, as far as she’s concerned – no one has Eleanor’s back.
But one day, as Park is reading his comic book on the bus, he notices that Eleanor is reading over his shoulder. Almost against his better judgment, he slides it over so she can share. She’s enthralled, and soon he is silently passing her comic books and mix tapes each day. It’s several weeks before they actually work up the nerve to speak to one another, but when they do, each finds in the other an unlikely soul mate, and they fall into love so intensely that it almost hurts. Here’s Park on Eleanor:
“I miss you, Eleanor. I want to be with you all the time. You’re the smartest girl I’ve ever met, and the funniest, and everything you do surprises me. And I wish I could say that those are the reasons I like you, because that would make me sound like a really evolved human being…But I think it’s got as much to do with your hair being red and your hands being soft…and the fact that you smell like homemade birthday cake.”
And here’s Eleanor on Park:
“I don’t think I even breathe when we’re not together,” she whispered. “Which means, when I see you on Monday morning, it’s been like sixty hours since I’ve taken a breath. That’s probably why I’m so crabby, and why I snap at you. All I do when we’re apart is think about you, and all I do when we’re together is panic. Because every second feels so important. And because I’m so out of control, I can’t help myself. I’m not even mine any more, I’m yours, and what if you decide that you don’t want me? How could you want me like I want you?”
Their relationship becomes a lifeline for Eleanor, whose situation goes from bad to worse. Park is sympathetic…but when the rubber really meets the road, will he love her enough to let her go?
By the end of the book, everybody will make some difficult choices, and there will be tears. Nevertheless, the ending is hopeful – not unrealistic, but just hopeful enough.
It’s a lovely read, but what makes it work is the characterization. Rowell doesn’t shy away from making her protagonists occasionally unlikeable – that Odious Richie sucks is a given (I haven’t loathed a character so much since I first encountered Ran Eld Caylon in Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden adventure Scout’s Progress), but both Park and Eleanor can be real pains in the butt. Park is a bit of a drama queen and is sometimes embarrassed by his unconventional girlfriend. Eleanor, for her part, is prickly, frustratingly noncommunicative, and generally crabby (not without cause, I’ll be the first to admit). She’s also unapologetically out for Number One, and in fact tells her younger siblings in so many words that if she escapes the clutches of Evil Richie, they can’t count on her to help them escape, as well.
But the story is so well-told that I ended up appreciating these two, even with all their faults. And growing up in the Midwest around the time Park and Eleanor did, I knew those people, and even though the book ended with them both still in high school, I could easily envision their future. Park ended up in Austin or Boulder or some other liberal-leaning college town, where he designed his own major and deejayed for the college radio station and smoked a lot of weed. Eleanor fought her way into a private college – St. Olaf or Oberlin or maybe Grinell – and became passionate about art history or ethnomusicology or something similarly “unmarketable”. Both had rocky freshman years but ultimately did just fine. And years down the road, when Park published his first novel and Eleanor finished her doctorate, they met again…
At least that’s what I think happens. Rainbow Rowell undoubtedly has other ideas…and if she does, I’d love to read about them.
Kate Nagy is Editor At Large of Geek Speak Magazine.