Friday Reads: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

eleanorandparkI know Eleanor & Park has been out for almost two years and many librarian-types have already read and loved it, but I just got around to listening to it this past week. I’m glad I did. It was evocative, filled with both angst and sweetness. The tragedy is that in the end Eleanor’s family situation is too dire to overcome by any other means than escape. I don’t want to provide a plot summary or review – those are plentiful elsewhere – but I will share a few personal thoughts/impressions:
  • The fact that the story was set in Omaha in 1984, when the characters were 16, definitely brought back memories. Though I graduated from a Lincoln high school in 1983, Rowell’s descriptions of students’ styles and (sadly) interactions rang true. References to music, the Old Market, and coffee at Village Inn also firmly grounded the narrative in a familiar time and place.
  • I loved Park’s parents, the way sometimes one was the good guy while the other was the bad guy, and then at other times the roles would be reversed. It seemed realistic, since as parents we each have blind spots as well as soft spots. I also loved the way the point of view switched back and forth between Eleanor and Park, sometimes moment by moment.
  • While high school definitely wasn’t a high point in my life (I considered myself somewhat disaffected at the time) I was completely sheltered from the type of dysfunction in which Eleanor’s life was steeped. However, I’m sure I had classmates who, unbeknownst to me, lived lives very similar to Eleanor’s. This is why I absolutely abhor the fact that parents try to ban books like Eleanor & Park from school libraries. If a book accurately portrays the lived experiences of some students, it strikes me as condescending and dismissive to claim that it is “inappropriate” for other students to even read about it, especially if the subject matter is handled compassionately, in a way that may cultivate empathy. And what about the potential value to students living lives similar to Eleanor’s in seeing their own experiences in print? Eleanor is beaten down, but she retains a sense of self, her quirky point of view, and is able to experience moments of sweetness and acceptance with Park. Although she doesn’t get the proverbial fairy-tale happy ending, she survives long enough to escape – and sometimes in real life maybe that takes precedence over the stereotypical though not universal “happy highs” of high school (e.g. boyfriends/girlfriends, parties, football, prom). That seems like an important message to me.
Having finished Eleanor & Park, I’ve now moved on to Fangirl, another book by Rainbow Rowell. This one is set in Lincoln, on the University of Nebraska campus. The main character lives in Pound Hall, is an English major who hangs out in Andrews Hall, and haunts the north basement of Love Library. Ditto, ditto, ditto. Rowell, Rainbow, Rebecca Lowman, and Sunil Malhotra. Eleanor & Park. Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2013. Internet resource. (Listen to excerpt)
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