Fashion Book: Eleanor & Park
I suggested Eleanor & Park for book club this month because we needed something uplifting, something light. Turns out, Eleanor & Park was not as light and uplifting as I thought, but I loved it anyway.
Park is the only Asian kid in his Nebraska high school in 1986. He wears black and listens to punk music. On the bus, that particular circle of high school hell, he prefers to listen to his headphones and read comic books than hang out with the obnoxious kids in the back of the bus. When Eleanor appears on the bus one day, no one knows her, and because she looks different, no one will let her sit with them. It’s like that scene in Forrest Gump. “Seat’s taken.” Park is so embarrassed for the girl that he lets her sit next to him, but he has no intention of ever talking to her, because that would be a way of drawing attention to himself, which is the last thing Park wants.
Eleanor is bigger than most high school girls. She has long, curly red hair and freckles. She wears oversize men’s clothing and neckties around her wrists like bracelets. She’s unlike anyone else, but just like everyone else in that she feels uncomfortable in her skin.
Eventually, Eleanor and Park form an uneasy friendship, wordlessly reading comics together on the bus until one day, they start talking and don’t stop. They trade comics and cassette tapes. Eleanor is tortured in ways only high school girls are capable of, and meanwhile, her home life is a wreck. Park is the only real comfort in her life.
I loved this book because Eleanor and Park were real people, not just caricatures of high school students in love. They have real problems and real emotions and deal with them in realistic ways for teenagers. Their love isn’t schmaltzy or cheap or based on hormones. They get confused and angry and jealous. Sometimes they do or say the complete wrong thing. And it’s lovely.
One of the hallmarks of the book is that it takes place in the 80s, and the music that Eleanor and Park share is essential. I read most of the book on a flight from Boston to Portland, listening to my 80s playlist I created on Spotify–the Smiths, the Cure, New Order, Joy Division–the music gave the words dimension. I recommend doing the same if you read the book (especially if you’re not familiar with the music of that era!). But Rainbow Rowell doesn’t hit you over the head with too many 80s cultural references. Instead, she lightly peppers the plot with tiny references to the time period, giving us just enough of a sense of the time and place without dating the book or making it seem like their story couldn’t have happened in another time. Because it could–the music might be different, and the kids would be trading mp3’s instead of cassette tapes, but the feelings would be the same.
I thought it would be fun to take a stab at Eleanor’s unique style. Here’s what I came up with: