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Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN: 1-25-001257-0
Published: February 2013, St. Martin’s Griffin
Purchase: Amazon, Indie Bound

Main Characters: Eleanor and Park

Synopsis: Eleanor is big, Eleanor is a redhead, and Eleanor does not dress to fit in. Eleanor is the new girl in town. None of those things add up to being popular. At home, she’s finally been let back into her old life; she was kicked out a year ago by her mother’s husband, Richie. Eleanor’s trying to stay under his radar, to be invisible, to not get kicked out again (or worse): she doesn’t have time to even be thinking about boys. But when she boards the bus to her new school for the first time, she doesn’t have a seat: the social hierarchy has already been established, the pecking order in place. What is she going to do, stand the whole way? It seemed like it, until someone slid over to make room… and that someone was Park.

to Rainbow Rowell and Eleanor & Park for winning a
Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature!

Memorable Quotes:

  • Eleanor had pretended not to notice the bruises on her mom’s wrist.
  • “Now there’s a girl who might want a piece of you,” Cal said. “Looks like somebody’s got jungle fever.”
    “That isn’t even the right kind of racist,” Park said, looking up. Cal was nodding toward the far corner of the library. The new girl was sitting there, staring right at them.
  • If this had happened two summers ago, Eleanor would have run and banged on the door herself. She would have yelled at Richie to stop. She would have called 911 at the very, very, very least. But now that seemed like something a child would do, or a fool. Now, all she could think about was what they were going to do if they baby actually started to cry. Thank God he didn’t. Even he seemed to realize that trying to make this stop would only ever make it worse.
  • “Your father is a piece of work,” her mother said. “Every time, he breaks your hearts. And every time, he expects me to pick up the pieces.” Pick up, sweep aside– same difference in her mom’s world. Eleanor didn’t argue.
  • “Like, a few minutes ago, you said you missed me. And for maybe the first time ever, you didn’t sound sarcastic or defensive or like you think I’m an idiot. And now you’re yelling at me.”
  • It was a terrible thing to admit. But sometimes, Eleanor slept right through the yelling. Especially after she’d been back a couple months. If she were to wake up every time Richie got angry … If she got scared every time she heard him yelling in the back room …

Review: This book was really, really hard to read. Not as in skill level, but as in heartbreaking. The central theme in Eleanor’s life is abuse, and it’s been that way for a really long time: ever since Richie entered their lives. Not that her life was great before that, but as she mentions at some point, her dad’s selfishness was way better than anything Richie ever did.

I think everyone’s been picked on at one point or another at school, but I was never anyone’s number one target. I never had my clothes flushed down a toilet during gym class. I never had a whole school bus chanting insults at me. Eleanor just can’t catch a break: if it’s not happening at home, it’s happening at school.

She finds solace in Park’s company, but it took a while for her to open up to the possibility. They went from non-speaking bus-seat-mates to silently reading comic books together to silently appreciating the same music to finally actually speaking. And once they started talking, they never stopped.

Relationship!Eleanor acts the way you’d expect for someone who a) is treated like shit by the people in her life who are supposed to love her, who b) never thought her peers would like her, who c) certainly never thought anyone would like her enough to want to be in a relationship with her. She’s scared as hell. They don’t do more than hold hands for months, and even that sets every nerve ending in her body aflame.

When they finally get around to kissing, Eleanor is hesitant. She’s only ever seen kisses on TV and in movies. Lips don’t come with an instruction manual! What if she messes up? What if it makes Park not want to be with her anymore? But they’re in the alley next to the RV, and even though it’s cold and dark, Park is warm, and Park is gentle, and he teaches her without a word.

(Did any of my readers ever have a “comfortable” first kiss? When mine happened, we’d been sort of fighting, and we were silently sitting at a picnic table in the park around nine at night, and we were both cold and nervous and shaking. I can’t imagine not being nervous for something like that. Let me hear your first kiss stories!)

Naturally, all the time Eleanor spends with Park is stolen time. Richie would never allow her to be out with a boy. He barely lets her out as it is, and that’s under the pretense that she’s visiting a girl friend named Tina. Richie is a mean drunk, and he’s always drunk. He beats their mother, probably close to every night, and he threw Eleanor’s typewriter through a wall before banishing her from her family for a year.

The book starts off with a little prologue from Park, talking about Eleanor being gone and how much he missed her and how sometimes he’d see people on the street that reminded him of her. So the fact that she somehow is gone at the end of the story isn’t a spoiler. However, as I read the novel, I got increasingly nervous: how would it happen? Does Richie… kill her?

Abuse can be really hard to write about, I think. People outside of abusive situations always wonder why the victims don’t just leave. I think this story beautifully illustrates why. You can’t leave because they’re family. You can’t leave because you think it will get better. You can’t leave because you think it isn’t that bad. From Eleanor’s mother’s standpoint, the abuser provides for her; he brings home the bacon, he gave her the roof over her children’s head. He even loves you, when he’s not hurting you. For Eleanor, the reasons may be different but the logic is the same. She thinks that if she does everything right, she’ll stay safe. Except she’s wrong. Abusers don’t need a reason.

This book is set in the mid-80s, and some of the references went right over my head. I mean, I know who The Smiths are, but I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan (sorry. They’re a bit whiny for me). And I never had a Walkman. I had Sesame Street cassette tapes when I was little, but by the time I was old enough to need portable music, they’d invented CDs. I never knew a time when they actually showed music videos on MTV, you know? So the environment was a bit hard for me to sink my teeth into.

I think my only gripe with this novel was the POV-switching. The story is told in third person and the characters often occupy the same space, so I thought the POV-switching was not only completely unnecessary but at times, very confusing. I’d be reading along from my third-person perspective and suddenly, the heading announces we’re now viewing it from Park’s perspective, but I thought I already was. I was confused trying to figure out whose head I was supposed to be in and why it even mattered. (I actually mentioned this to a friend who read the book a bit ago, and she said she didn’t even remember that they switched. From that, I affirm: the switching has no impact on the narrative.)

I definitely enjoyed reading this book; I started yesterday afternoon and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished at 4am. (What a coincidence that it won that award today!) I’m a bit torn on what rating to give it, because like I mentioned, I did have a hard time with the setting and the POV-switching, but the story itself is just so well-told. Also, I feel like this review shied away from Park and his life, but his mother and father are great characters, and he does deal with a few issues on his own. So don’t leave it up to me, go pick it up and read it yourself! Like Reading Rainbow says, “You don’t have to take my word for it…”

Rating: ★★★★


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Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Fangirl
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN: 1-25-003095-1
Published: September 2013, St. Martin’s Griffin
Purchase: Amazon, Indie Bound


Main Characters: Cath, Wren, Levi, Reagan

Synopsis: Cath and her twin sister, Wren, are off to college. They used to be as close as twins can be, but they’re not rooming together at college. They’re not even speaking to each other much. Cath buries herself in writing fanfiction of the hottest Wizarding Boy series ever, hiding from her scary new roommate and the parade of hot boys that follow her into the room. One of them hangs around more than the others, and that’s Levi. Levi is also… really hot? But Cath can’t date anyone. There’s no room in her heart for anyone but Simon and Baz, let alone the boyfriend of her roommate. Or is there more to this scenario than meets the eye?

Memorable Quotes:

  • “I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.”
    “I don’t want to be your friend,” Cath said as sternly as she could. “I like that we’re not friends.”
    “Me too,” Reagan said. “I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.”
  • Kanye always crawled right under her skin. He was the perfect antidote to any serious frustration. Just enough angry, just enough indignant, just enough the-world-will-never-know-how-ridiculously-awesome-I-am. Just enough poet.
  • His corned beef hash came. A whole mess of it. He moved Cath’s coffee cup to the table and scooped hash onto her saucer. Cath at it– it was easier than arguing. She’d been arguing all day, and so far, no one had listened. And besides, the corned beef hash was really good, like they made it fresh with real corned beef, and there were two sunny-side-up eggs on top.
  • It smelled like Levi. And some sort of warm, spicy thing that might be cologne. Or soap. Or deodorant. Levi sat on her bed so often, it was all familiar. Sometimes he smelled like cigarette smoke, but not tonight. Sometimes like beer.
  • “Dad’s sick, Wren,” she said as calmly as she could manage. She scraped the omelette out of the pan and dropped it onto a plate. “And your omelette’s burnt. And I’d rather be broken than wasted.”
  • “I really hate her,” Cath said, shaking her head, trying to imagine what kind of mother cried on the first day of kindergarten, then walked out in the middle of third grade.

Review: This was my first encounter with a book by Rainbow Rowell, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. There are very few writers willing to tackle the subject of fanfiction in a novel, let alone slash fanfiction, and if such subjects are broached, they’re usually being mocked. But Rowell went full-hog with this one: interspersed between chapters are passages not only from Cath’s multiple fanfiction endeavours, but from the actual text that Cath is spinning off of. (Now THAT’S dedication.) The Wizarding Boy stories bears a resemblance to some other Wizarding Boy story, which just makes the fanfiction in the book… threefold! (Deeper. We have to go deeper.)

Anyway, Cath is dealing with some shit. (Spoilers ahead.) She becomes estranged from her twin, Wren, at college, because Wren is into the “traditional” college things– drinking, dancing, staying out all night, and kissing frat boys. Cath wants nothing to do with any of that, and it’s seen by many as a strange choice. I can identify with that, though, as I think many people who read the book will. I rarely ever drink, I’ve never done drugs, and while I am usually awake all night, it’s not because I’m out partying– I’m here on my computer. It’s definitely not the social choice to make, so I think Cath and I definitely have a bit of introversion in common.

Except that Wren used to be the same way. She even used to help Cath co-author the stories. And if she wasn’t writing them, she was editing them. Now, she doesn’t want anything to do with Simon & Baz, and Cath can’t help but feel betrayed.

Cath does have some deep-seeded issues, though. Their mother ran out on them when Cath and Wren were in third grade and never looked back– until now. She’s made contact, and while Cath doesn’t want anything to do with her, Wren is (again) doing the traitorous thing and spending time with their mother. Their father never completely recovered from the blow, either. He’s in and out of depression, sometimes not  bothering to work or eat breakfast, and it’s a constant source of worry for Cath.

That’s why she doesn’t talk to her roommate until her roommate initiates contact, and that’s why she’s afraid of anything resembling a relationship with Levi: she doesn’t want to end up like her mother, who not only leaves people but leaves them reeling. And she doesn’t want to end up like her father, who’s two bananas shy of a bushel. However, Cath has to come to realize that those aren’t her only two choices: she’s allowed to end up as Cath.

At any rate, Rowell spins a beautiful, realistic world with beautifully troubled characters (even in the fanfiction segments). It’s definitely a personal plot line rather than an adventurous one, but that’s all right; I don’t think we ever need adventure, regardless of what American movie trailers try to tell us. (Did you know we get different trailers than other countries? In Europe, for example, the trailers appear to the emotional side of the story. In America? BLOW EVERYTHING UP.) But I digress. If you haven’t yet picked up any of Rowell’s books, this is a great place to start.

(This book features cover art by the amazing Gingerhaze! Check out her work, too, if you’ve somehow managed to miss it!)

Rating: ★★★★★

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