I spent all of yesterday with the Eleanor & Park audiobook playing while I nursed my post-bachelorette party hangover. I rehydrated to the two different voices reading Eleanor and Park’s parts (genius idea, really, to increase the emotionally impact by having two distinct voices in actual sound as well as diction). When I knew I should be going to sleep because tomorrow was the first day at my brand new job—I let the audiobook play for another two hours instead.
Rainbow Rowell captures the teenage voice so beautifully. My heart ached, and even the pop culture references that usually make me feel woefully out-of-touch and un-cool didn’t matter in that swirling mass of nostalgic teenage emotion. For a while I was worried, knowing what I do about stories, because the conflict of whether or not there is a romance was settled far too soon. Which foretold a far darker conflict later on—which Rowell delivered. The body issues were explored with such grace. No heavy-handed moralizing here, just speculation. What would happen if you took a normal teenager, self-conscious and facing body-shaming from all sides, and made them feel temporarily safe with someone who loved them exactly as they were? And how true to life, that both Eleanor and Park felt the same way, that they just couldn’t imagine what the other saw in them.
I first heard about this book when Robin Benway visited one of my graduate school residencies with UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program. Someone asked her what she’d read recently that she loved, and she mentioned Eleanor & Park. Then a young adult editor a couple residencies later seconded that. I’ve seen people name it as their recent favorite fairly often since then, in articles and Facebook posts. With the wedding coming up so soon, I wanted a reminder of romance in its most passionate form. No one knows how to love more passionately than teenagers. We might love in healthier ways when we get older, but you have to admire the tenacity and intensity of teenage love.
If I had to pick a favorite, between Eleanor and Park, I think I would be completely stuck. That’s how well Rowell writes both of them. They are real and beautiful and unique. So real that you can’t say you like one more than the other. They both have flaws, they are both amazing. I did find myself frustrated with Eleanor sometimes, when she would pull away, or not say things that I thought she should. And then I would remind myself what it felt like to be a teenager, knowing the percentage of the time things actually worked out in your favor when you were brave or stupid enough to speak up. Knowing how often adults just didn’t seem to listen, or care. And when Eleanor started to trust Park, even if she still struggled, even if she still pulled away, it was so real. I don’t know many people who escaped childhood without trust issues of one kind or another, and of course Eleanor would have a harder time trusting in their relationship. It’s like any time I notice someone making a mistake—if I can see why they’ve done it, I’m not angry or frustrated anymore.
I would recommend Eleanor & Park to anyone. It brings back wonderful nostalgia, if you had a high school sweetheart you cared intensely for, and it’s so real that it could convince people who didn’t experience teenage love that they really knew what it felt like, just by hearing Eleanor and Park’s story. And I imagine as a teenager, it would feel like the truest story, like it really got me in a way other literature seldom did.
I hope I can pick up a physical copy of this one, as I’d like to be able to go over some sections a few times, to really savor them in a way you can’t when the audiobook just keeps on playing. It’s more than worthy of a re-read, and I’m going to see if I can slip it onto my soon-to-be-husband’s playlist for one of his long drives. I think he’d love it.