Two days ago I picked up Eleanor & Park from my library, and last night I finished it through a steady stream of tears. In his review for the NY Times, John Green writes:
“Eleanor & Park” reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.
It’s true. This book left me feeling nostalgic not only about first love, but about reading experiences long gone, when the contents of a book, especially about love, were a total revelation.
I expected a love story between two teenage misfits, what I didn’t expect was such a deeply moving story about the challenges many American kids face far too soon, and far too often. (SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read the book you may want to stop here).
Eleanor is poor in a way we rarely see represented in fiction. There is not enough money to go around, and on top of that, her stepfather is a violent alcoholic. As I was reading about the nightmare that is Eleanor’s life, I kept thinking about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie’s life was miserable too, but there was love in his house. Charlie is the scrappy kid who grew up poor but was destined to go places. Eleanor is scrappy too, but she does not imagine a way out. And crucially, neither do the adults in her life.
Eleanor’s mother is woman paralyzed by fear of an abusive husband. Early in the novel we learn that the last time Eleanor stood up to her stepfather, she was kicked out of the house and sent to live with family friends for an entire year. Her mother, though well-meaning, did not take her daughter’s side in that fight, and so Eleanor is well aware that she is on her own. At the start of the book, she has just returned to life with her family, and is trying her best to keep her head down.
It isn’t fair to call Eleanor ashamed. She is not quite ashamed of the fact that she has no access to batteries, to a toothbrush. She is simply embarrassed. She never once acknowledges that her strange style of dressing is a strategy she has developed to cover up the fact that most of her clothes are falling apart, and none fit her quite right. Rather than appear threadbare, she pins pieces of fabric to the holes in her jeans and her sweaters.
Most readers will not be able to understand the kind of suffering that Eleanor endures, but there is something utterly universal about the fact that it is often in the encounter with a first love that we are faced with the uniqueness of our own family situation. When she enters Park’s house for the first time, Eleanor is overwhelmed by its pristine order. She can’t believe that there are homes filled with small bowls of potpourri, and pantries abundant with many varieties of cookies. Park never sees the inside of Eleanor’s house, but he quickly learns, both from Eleanor, and from watching how his parent’s worry about her, that other people live differently than he does. And that other people’s parents are not as strong and solid as his.
Eleanor & Park has a Judy Blume like maturity. This is a book about two teenagers falling in love, but it is also about all of the complicated ways that love is doled out in the world. Some kids are raised in houses where love is unconditional, generous, and kind. Others are not. The fact that this is true is brutally unfair. But fiction has the power to at least let us face this unfairness head on, with compassion and wonder.