Omaha. Somewhere in middle America. This is the setting for Rainbow Rowell’s 2012 award-winning teen romance novel. My own love story holds some parallels to this fictional tale- yearning to escape home, falling in love unintentionally, and rediscovering myself both musically and emotionally, byproducts of that unexpected, one-of-a-kind friendship which transformed into love. I married that one-of-a-kind friend, an Omaha native (Go, fightin’ Bunnies!) and we lived in nearby Lincoln, NE. for three years. If you’ve never been to Omaha, you may not realize how vital this landlocked, drab midwest city in the fluorescent ’80’s fits the setting and plot of Eleanor & Park. That’s okay. It’s still a worthy read.
My only criticism, however, is the language. It’s pretty uncouth- for me, at least. Normally I would berate a book for allowing such lazy use of the English language to crowd out alternative forms of expression, but in this case, I will extend some grace. For teenagers, swearing profusely can be a growing pain of the adolescent vernacular in process. Sometimes this vernacular doesn’t mature. Grown-ups in Eleanor & Park add their own zesty language to this coming-of-age tale. But, the author’s use of inappropriate language encompasses parts of the story where the rough tone expresses more than mere words. Foul language is uncomfortable, antagonistic, and demoralizing, and the author uses it as a vehicle to amplify that tone. The language alone, by grating on me and incurring images of isolation and pain, transported me back to hell, I mean, high school. Mission accomplished.
I’d rather discuss the beauty of this book. I’m not exactly a sold-out romantic, and neither are the two main characters, Eleanor and Park. Their initial unromantic attitudes make their eventual fathomless commitment all the more captivating. And- they feel real. This description of fictional characters is wearing thin, but in the case of Eleanor & Park; it’s true. I had friends like them. I was like them. It’s a difficult and satisfying feat for an author to create realistic characters readers can invest in. Kudos to Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor is weird, complicated, brilliant, neglected, and lonely. Park has hidden strength, and is shy, creative, rebellious, and deep. These teenagers don’t fit into a box neatly like comic books. Their foray thru high school and family life is an unyielding mountain. As a result, their relationship becomes a means of survival. The romance is of the teenage variety, but not completely saccharine- more nutritional, like honey. There are reasonable circumstances that allow the reader to be comfortable with Eleanor and Park’s heaping servings of syrupy, unfettered devotion. No spoilers- just trust me. As a side note, I appreciated that the writer decided not to take the characters’ physical relationship too far and cheapen their young bond.
The devotion between these two extraordinary, yet ordinary, characters is enough to entice the reader to keep reading; but the additional tension pressing on Eleanor’s home life, an antagonist in its own right, also contributed to the plot movement and overall interest. The sense of urgency, fear, and anger-inducing neglect of Eleanor was palpable and tragic. In addition, Park’s sardonic musical inclinations, his family dynamics, and his emotional transformation were as riveting as the Beatles’ White Album.
Rainbow Rowell’s writing induced sarcastic smiles, wrenched my heart, and caused a few eye rolls; but most often, it rekindled that knot-in-the-throat version of unabashed love in my fond memory. Good stuff.
And- the ending? …ahhh.
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