Rainbow Rowell’s first novel for young adults is a touching story about first love between two misfit teenagers, but it’s the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl.
Omaha, Nebraska. It’s August 1986, and two 15-year-olds are on a school bus. Eleanor, a large girl with red hair and odd clothes, has returned home a year after her abusive stepfather first kicked her out and is struggling to fit in. Park, a half-Korean boy who usually keeps his head down and his music turned up, takes pity on her and moves over to let her sit next to him. Neither of them speaks, but after a while Eleanor begins reading Park’s comic books over his shoulder. He still says nothing, but starts to leave comics on the seat for her to borrow. Eventually, they start talking, about The X-Men and The Smiths and Walkman batteries, and their unspoken affinity grows into friendship, even though Eleanor is initially reluctant to let anyone into her life. Then, one day, Park takes Eleanor’s hand, and she doesn’t pull away.
The shifting perspective of Rowell’s narration between her two protagonists creates a delicious sense of dramatic irony, as we are allowed to see the things that neither character is willing to share with the other. Even at first, when Eleanor and Park’s only interaction is the silent sharing of comics and mixtapes, the reading experience is something like overhearing a conversation between two minds. And then we follow Eleanor home to the tiny bedroom she shares with her four siblings and learn that she doesn’t even have a toothbrush, much less a phone, and that’s why she can’t give Park her number. Or else we witness Park’s difficult relationship with the father for whom he will never be enough of a man, and we understand why he doesn’t see himself the way Eleanor does. This harsh backdrop keeps the characters grounded, and also keeps the writing on the right side of saccharine even when the young lovers are lost in one another’s eyes. As they become closer, Eleanor and Park learn to be more open with each other but, just like them, their relationship is always slightly flawed. As a result, their story is much more real than that of the archetypical “star-crossed lovers”, Romeo and Juliet, which Eleanor dismisses as Shakespeare “making fun of love”. Park is more forgiving, suggesting that the play is mostly for the benefit of people who want to remember falling in love for the first time, but the implication is the same: a rose-tinted version of love might be possible for Romeo and Juliet, who within the space of a few days are “shallow, confused, then dead”, but for real people, love is difficult, messy, and unpredictable. Eleanor and Park don’t fall in love at first sight, and they soon discover that understanding one another is a continuous process, but the raw honesty of Rowell’s writing is what makes this story so deeply compelling.