Lovely, lovely and more lovely. I sat before work today, dawdling over my breakfast, and finished 'Eleanor and Park' by Rainbow Rowell. This is another book that I read about on someone's blog and added to my library request list. It was partly for Creature because the two characters bond over a shared enjoyment of comic books, but once I had read the first couple of chapters I was so taken with it.
Eleanor appears on the school bus and in a moment of pity Park moves over and gives her a seat; so begins a beautiful friendship, that blossoms into something neither expected. Park is an oddball 'Asian kid' who lives life keeping his head down in the hope that no one will notice him, just on the periphery of the 'back of the bus' gang. Eleanor, with her wild red curls and a somewhat eccentric dress sense, has just been accepted back into the bosom of her family. Her mother is trapped in a horrible abusive relationship with a man who seems to delight in exercising his power over the family, and who had unceremoniously kicked Eleanor out over a year previously. The uneasy peace in the family home is punctuated by drunken screaming rows, tantrums and gunshots. I tried very hard not to judge the mother, having read a long article just recently about how abusive people control and manipulate others, but I did spend a lot of the book angry with her for failing to protect her children.
Although the story is peppered with friends and family members the focus is on Eleanor and Park, with sections swapping back and forth between their two perspectives on the developing relationship. It is lovely because it is such a wonderful portrayal of teenage insecurities and the knots that people tie themselves in when they like someone but don't want to be vulnerable to the pain of rejection. He begins by lending her comic books when he catches her reading over his shoulder:
"They still didn't talk on the bus, but it had become a less confrontational silence. Almost friendly (but not quite).
Park would have to talk to her today - to tell her that he didn't have anything to give her. He'd overslept, than forgotten to grab the stack of comics he'd set out for her the night before. He hadn't even had time to eat breakfast or brush his teeth, which made him self-conscious, knowing he was going to be sitting so close to her.
But when she got on the bus and handed him yesterday's comics, all Park did was shrug. She looked away. They both looked down.
She was wearing that ugly necktie again. Today it was tied around her wrist. Her arms and wrists were scattered with freckles, layers of them in different shades of gold and pink, even on the back of her hands. Little-boy hands, his mom would call them, with short-short nails and ragged cuticles.
She stared down at the books in her lap. Maybe she thought he was mad at her. He stared at her books, too - covered in ink and Art Nouveau doodles." (p.43)
Then it starts to get very intense and sensual, like when you are attracted to someone you are hyper-aware of them and their physical presence. It is lovely because you can't help but sympathise with them and their predicament. You want to reassure them but the story has presented us with such a vivid picture of both that you understand the tiny baby steps they take towards each other:
"Holding Eleanor's hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete and completely alive.
As soon as he had touched her, he wondered how he'd gone this long without doing it. He rubbed his thumb through her palm and up her fingers, and was aware of her every breath.
Park had held hands with girls before. Girls at Skateland. A girl at the ninth grade dance last year. (They'd kissed while they waited for her dad to pick them up.) He'd even held Tina's hand, back when they 'went' together in the sixth grade.
And always, before, it had been fine. not much different from holding Josh's hand when they were little kids crossing the street. Or holding his grandma's hand when she took him to church. Maybe a little sweatier, a little more awkward.
Or maybe, he thought now, he just didn't recognise all those other girls. The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn't recognise the formatting.
When he touched Eleanor's hand, he recognised her. He knew." (p.72-3)
And little touches like this, that lets you know that here is a writer who really understand her characters:
"She saw him after seventh hour in a place she'd never seen him before, carrying a microscope down the hall on the third floor. It was at least twice as nice as seeing him somewhere she expected him to be." (p.163-4)
There is an early reference in their English class to 'Romeo and Juliet'. Eleanor is scathing of the idea that they fall in love, but the scene feels like it's being set; we have our two protagonists, from very much opposite sides of the fence, a social gulf rather than a family feud (and he even arrives at her bedroom window at one point). Even though she has to lie to her mother, Park's house becomes a safe space for Eleanor to escape her increasingly unpleasant home life, but you can't help but know that their carefully constructed deception is going to come crashing down around them. She gives us crises, she gives us moments of bliss, she gives us unlikely characters stepping into the breach, she gives us a dramatic rescue ... this book just has it all. Perfect comfort reading for the middle aged and cynical. I loved it.