123. Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell
I really loved this book.
On some levels, it's a quiet book: most of the scenes focus on the unfolding relationship between Eleanor and Park. But Rowell develops this relationship so beautifully, I found myself rereading scenes just to try and figure out how she maintained the pacing in a novel where (in some scenes) not much actually happens. I think what I loved best was the characters: Rowell makes you fall in love with both characters--not in spite of their imperfections, but in part because of those imperfections--so it seems perfectly natural that Eleanor and Park should love each other as well.
Park is a pretty average kid: he falls short of his father's expectations, but he's a good kid, his parents love each other (maybe too much), he gets by in school and he's not at the bottom of the social totem pole. When he first sees Eleanor, he recognizes immediately that she is precisely the kind of person who draws the wrong kind of attention in school. But when no one else will let Eleanor sit with them on the bus (and she clearly has to sit somewhere), Park reluctantly--even angrily--gives her a place to sit by him. This simple act leads to an improbable friendship and a smart, funny, heart-breaking romance.
All Eleanor seems to want is to be invisible, to get through the day without drawing any attention. But she's all wrong, from her out of control curly red hair to her over-sized body, to the clothes she wears (mostly men's clothes because her mom can't afford to buy her anything new). At home, Eleanor struggles to find her place after being gone for a year (where and why is one of the early mysteries of the book). She looks out for her four younger siblings and tries, at all costs, to avoid her stepfather, who's a real piece of work.
And then she meets Park, and everything changes. Because he sees her. He gets her. And he likes her--loves her--anyway.
I wish a book like this had been around when I was in high school: it would have made a big difference to the gawky, overweight red-head I was then to believe that someone could think I was beautiful. Rowell gets so convincingly inside of Park's head that we realize that it doesn't even matter to him that Eleanor is what some people would call "fat"--to him, she's beautiful. Period. And through his eyes we see all the ways that she's luminous (a word Rowell uses frequently to refer to Eleanor). I loved, too, how well the book captured the immediacy and all-consuming nature of one's first real romance.
Really, the only thing I didn't like was that there wasn't enough of it. Also, there was some language--but in context, it worked (the coarseness of Eleanor's language is largely a reflection of the coarseness of her home life).