After thoroughly enjoying Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, I was curious and eager to pick up her earlier works, Attachments and Eleanor and Park.
Reading them all within a relatively short span of time may not have been a great idea because I began to notice similarities between all three. These are things I might not necessarily have seen had I read them with a bit more space in them.
Rowell tells the story of unconventional romantic entanglements. But these aren’t necessarily your Hollywood formula romantic comedies, though her first novel Attachments comes the closest to following that formula.
Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder work for a small-town newspaper that has recently adopted an e-mail system (the novel was written a few years ago when e-mail was both fun and relatively new). To keep things professional, all messages are monitored. That job falls to Lincoln O’Neill. Each night, Lincoln checks flagged messages and warns the offending parties of their transgressions.
That is until he begins reading in on Beth and Jennifer’s personal messages, detailing their lives and romantic frustrations. Instead of warning them, Lincoln finds himself slowly drawn into their lives and that he might just be falling in love with Beth. Of course, the road to a relationship has some pitfalls including that Beth is still tied to her college boyfriend who is also a musician and Lincoln lives at home following the break-up of the only significant romantic relationship he’s ever had.
Oh and there’s the small detail that he’s reading the private e-mails as well.
The quirk and charms of the characters help carry the novel, even after the premise starts to lose some of its charm. Seeing Lincoln debate about if and how he should tell Beth gets a bit tedious after a while. In many ways, it feels like a drawn out “will they or won’t they” romance on a situation comedy. I found myself being far less interested in when these two star-crossed romantic foils might finally get together and more curious about the complications of one side knowing the other more intimately that the other to start a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, we don’t get much of that in the novel’s final pages. We do get some glimpses of how things work out for everyone (Jennifer and her husband are having difficulties starting a family), but I found myself wishing Rowell had explored more of the unconventional relationship once it got rolling than a lot of the build-up to it.
Thankfully, Rowell’s Eleanor And Park is more willing to explore what happens when two unconventional people get together. Set in 1986, the novel introduces us to outcasts Eleanor and Park. Park is an outcast because of his choice in music and his love for comic books. Eleanor is an outcast because of her family and social station.
Park is forced to share his seat Eleanor on the bus (no one else will move from their “assigned” seat) and what begins as a reluctant act of kindness soon blossoms into something more significant for two unlikely romantic leads.
Bonding over a love of music (Park makes her mix-tapes…ah, the memories) and of comic books, the two soon become romantically involved. Rowell switches between the viewpoints of both characters to give us some fascinating insights into the mindset of each and their reaction to situations and each other.
Of the two, Eleanor faces significant hurdles in not only dating but Park, but life in general. Her father doesn’t have any interest in her (except to babysit the children of his new fiancee) and her mom hasn’t chosen well in marrying again. Her step-father threw her out a year ago and has only reluctantly taken her back into his home. Eleanor lives in constant fear of Richie (the step-father) finding out about Park and throwing her out again. Richie, it seems, wants to take away any and all happiness from Eleanor and her siblings.
As with Fangirl, Eleanor and Park brims with authentic characters in a universe that feels (for the most part) real and fresh. Park is half-Korean and struggles with his own sense of identity (as do most people at the age of 16). Both Eleanor and Park fall short of what the father-figures in their lives would like them to be and that conflict drives a lot of the novel. It’s in the mother figures in their lives that Park is more fortunate, having a strong-willed mother who is willing to stand up for her children. Eleanor doesn’t have that privilege.
It’s Park’s Korean mother that serves as my one main criticism of this novel. She’s not overly stereotypical, but she never quite feels as authentically drawn as the other characters in the book. It’s a shortcoming that keeps me from loving and embracing the novel as much as others have.
I’m also intrigued to see that the book has come under some fire for its use of language and adult themes. Yes, the novel addresses both and there is a lot of swearing in there. But if you’ve ever been around teenagers, you may know that some of them swear. And some of them face a reality that is as bleak as Eleanor’s. I think that those who are taking the time to count up the number of f-bombs in the book are missing the forest for the trees.
As an unconventional love story about accepting and loving each other for who we are, Eleanor and Park succeeds in spades. The way in which these two grow closer to each other works extremely well. Rowell captures that feeling of first live with each of her characters. Scenes where the two hold hands for the first time and engage in their first tentative kiss crackle across the page. And while the two do engage in the usual teenage physical hijinks, the novel handles maturely their decision to not “go all the way” just yet.
Eleanor and Park succeeds on a variety of levels.
But it still can’t quite unseat Fangirl as my favorite of Rowell’s three novels I’ve read this year.
But why take my word for it? Read both and decide for yourself. And don’t worry if anyone gives you a funny look for browsing in the young adult section. Be like Eleanor and Park and don’t allow anyone else to choose your label.