Ignore her, leave her to the bullies in the back of the bus. Better her than him. Despite his best intentions, he moves over, she sits down.
Eleanor & Park.
Slowly, something changes between Eleanor and Park. The comics that Park reads, that he notices Eleanor reading along with him. He listens to the music she’s interested in but never heard, so he makes her a mix tape. And just like that . . . Eleanor & Park.
It’s About: A wonderful, enchanting story of two sixteen-year-olds falling in love. When Eleanor and Park’s hands touch for the first time — when they realize that what they feel is reciprocated — as they try to work out their feelings for each other against a harsh background — oh, all the highs and lows and first love.
“Harsh background” underplays their situations. Eleanor is the new girl in town, overweight, wearing odd clothes, not belonging. Eleanor’s family is beyond poor. She lives with her mother, stepfather, and four younger siblings. The five children share one room in a house that doesn’t have a bathroom door. Eleanor doesn’t have a toothbrush or toothpaste. It’s poverty, yes, but it’s not “just” the family not having a lot. It’s also that Richie, her stepfather, is a drunk who hits her mother. It’s also that last year, he threw her out. Eleanor has spent a year sleeping on someone else’s couch and has only just now been allowed to return.
I’ll be honest: I hated Eleanor’s mother, Sabrina. I tried to be sympathetic, noting that she got pregnant with Eleanor while in high school. Her first husband, Eleanor’s father, is charming but not good for much else. That first pregnancy would have been in 1970, I figured, and I tried to give Sabrina some slack in the decisions she made that affected her children. But, later in the book, when Sabrina speaks of staying with Richie despite everything, she says, “I haven’t been on my own since eighth grade.” And, I can’t. I just can’t. While I found Eleanor’s mother believable, I also just can’t stand her, that she prefers a man, any man, to being alone; prefers an abusive man to protecting her children because she doesn’t want to be alone. And while, to her credit, Richie is not shown hitting the children, he is emotionally abusive and controlling.
Park is much more fortunate than Eleanor: like her, he lives in the poor area of town. Unlike Eleanor, and unlike many of their neighbors, his parents are together and much in love. Park’s father me this mother while he was stationed in Korea. Min-Dae left her country, her family, her friends, even her name — she is now Mindy. Park lives with his parents and younger brother next door to their grandparents, his father’s parents. He has what Eleanor lacks: love as well as material comforts. Yet he, too, doesn’t quite belong: being part Korean, liking different music and clothes and styles, not being the type of son his father would want.
Together — oh, these two together. “Which means, when I see you on Monday morning, it’s been sixty hours since I’ve taken a breath. That’s probably why I’m so crabby, and why I snap at you. All I do when we’re apart is think about you, and all I do when we’re together is panic. Because every second feels so important. And because I’m so out of control, I can’t help myself. I’m not even mine anymore, I’m yours, and what if you decide that you don’t want me? How could you want me like I want you?” Oh, how could you like me like I want you.
Of course, it’s not easy. And does first love ever last?
I wondered why Eleanor & Park was set, so firmly, in 1986. I was just a handful of years older than Eleanor and Park. Why, I wonder, set this story then? Why not know? (Sorry, this is how I think.) And, for me, the answer was the music. Eleanor and Park bond over very specific bands and songs, all real, and none of them top 40. Music, the type of music one listens to, is something that teens use to define themselves. I listen to this band, so I’m this type of person. Eleanor likes the music even before she hears it, because of what she’s read about it — because of how she wants to see yourself. To convey the importance of this, I think they had to be real bands even if readers aren’t going to know all the bands and songs they listen to. Current bands? Well, are too current. Made up bands? Can’t convey the same depth. So it had to be this time, this music. It’s because of the music that I think of Eleanor and Park as a sideways Pretty in Pink.
Eleanor and Park is told by Eleanor and Park; so it limits the reality of some of what is shown. Park’s father at first seems really tough on his son, maybe too tough, but as the story unfolds it turns out that his father is a very decent, caring man. The bullies on the bus, yes, they treat Eleanor terribly and Park views himself as a target. But later, after something happens, one says to Park that he thought they were friends and it just made me wonder, about what else was going on in people’s lives. Teenaged love can be all consuming, as Eleanor describes, yes; but being a teenager can also be about being consumed so with oneself that one doesn’t see what is going on in others lives. A few sentences to Eleanor reveals things going on in the neighbor’s home that Park never suspects. He’s too wrapped up in his own life.