Teenagers often experience things intensely, especially emotions. It's kind of like going through life the way Eleanor thinks Park looks in his eyeliner—with the "volume turned up" (35.150)—and Rowell's tone reflects this. Eleanor and Park describe things vividly, using memorable phrases and plenty of humor and spirit. Even though Eleanor, in particular, deals with unbelievably tough situations, her voice always has a wry, intelligent spark.
Check out one of the ways Eleanor tells Park she likes him:
"And you look like a protagonist." She was talking as fast as she could think. "You look like a person who wins in the end. You're so pretty, and so good. You have magic eyes," she whispered. (19.358)
She doesn't just come out and say it—she busts out similes, ramping up her declaration both in terms of descriptive language and strength of feeling. It's young love at it's most, well, vivid.
The realistic tone shines through in all of the darker moments. As much as Rowell imbues Eleanor and Park's relationship with the optimism and adoration of the best teenage romances, so, too, does she let the violence and fear of Eleanor's home life stand stark and true. Though she doesn't dig into all the details—Richie's more violent tendencies are largely implied instead of left on the page—the ways in which he haunts Eleanor's home life are as real as they come.
There's really no other place to put this book: Eleanor & Park definitely belongs in the young adult section. You've got two teenage protagonists dealing with young love, family issues, identity, and acceptance—basically the bread and butter of YA Lit. And since as everything comes to a head on Eleanor's home front both characters take giant steps toward adulthood, acting for themselves without adult guidance, it's firmly in the coming of age genre, too. Not convinced? Be sure to read up on Jamie's truck over in the "Symbols" section.
Nothing fancy here, folks. This book is called Eleanor & Park because it's about… Eleanor and Park. This simple, no-brainer title seems to be in line with Rowell's straightforward writing style. Not only that, it echoes the perspective shifts that structure this story, hopping back and forth between Eleanor and Park to understand them as individuals and a couple from both of their vantage points. This book isn't just about Eleanor and Park, it hangs out with them each respectively, too.
No doubt about it, Eleanor & Park is a heartbreaking story. Even though we know from the first page that these two will be separated by the end, by the time the big goodbye rolls around, we're totally attached to these two characters, and their incredible bravery and pain during their farewell would make even the Grinch's heart explode.
Their all-night drive seems to be one big, extended goodbye: Park "cried into [Eleanor's] hair until he fell asleep" (52.19), and Eleanor "held his beautiful face and kissed him like it was the end of the world" (52.27). This is not a wave and a handshake—this is an emotional supernova.
Park insists it won't be the last time they see each other, because that's what he needs to believe. Eleanor's somehow less optimistic, though, saying, "Life's a bastard" (53.15). Maybe Park, who's endured a lot less trauma than Eleanor, is somehow more naïve? Or maybe he's right, and love will find a way?
Once they go their separate ways, Eleanor and Park cope totally differently. Park writes Eleanor tons of letters and hopes she'll call, but Eleanor can't even read Park's letters, and every time she starts writing to him, she rips up her letter without sending it. It's almost like Eleanor thinks it's easier to lose Park if she cuts herself off completely. Whatever the reason, it's impossible not to feel sympathy for Park as he waits for letters and phone calls that never come.
One letter Eleanor does write, almost immediately, is a letter to her mom:
She said everything she'd wanted to say in the last six months. She said she was sorry. She begged her to think of Ben and Mouse—and Maisie. She threatened to call the police. (55.51-54)
Wow. Finally, a safe distance away from Richie, Eleanor can tell her mom everything. Even though Eleanor couldn't take her siblings with her, this seems like her best effort to save all of them.
And it seems like it works, too. Park reports that Eleanor's siblings and their toys have vanished from Eleanor's house, but Richie is still there. (Eleanor never mentions getting a response from her mom, though.) In one chilling scene, Park walks by Eleanor's old house and sees Richie come home and fall out of his car, nearly too drunk to stand. He stands over Richie, thinking about hurting him—or killing him—but instead just kicks the ground next to him, sending ice and dirt into Richie's face. Park, it seems, blames Richie (and rightly so) for a whole lot.
Both Eleanor and Park manage to move on. Park gets even more heavily into eyeliner and punk music, and gets a job at his favorite record store; Eleanor goes to theater camp and starts over at a new school. But it's pretty clear that neither of them stops thinking about each other. At the very end of the book, Park finally—finally—gets a postcard from Eleanor that "Just three words long" (58. 10). We think we know what Eleanor wrote, but we'll never know. It a little bit kills us.
What do you think the postcard said?
In Eleanor & Park, the time period of our story is nearly as important as the place: 1986. Rowell constantly sprinkles references to mid-80s pop culture and music into her book, but we get the feeling that she chose the '80s for more than just a nostalgia-fest. Why the '80s? Well, for one thing, she's said in interviews that she grew up in the '80s, so she has strong emotional ties to the decade. The music and comics that Eleanor and Park love are definitely a big part of the story as well.
But more than that, this story couldn't really happen in an era of cell phones and social media. Eleanor's isolation from Park is sometimes a problem because of her family's lack of a landline—something that would almost never happen today. It's a big deal when Eleanor goes to her dad's house to babysit, because she gets to actually call Park on the phone, and in an era without call waiting, Park freaks out waiting for his mom to get off the phone so he can talk to Eleanor.
All of these little details contribute to Eleanor and Park's desperation to see each other. And at the end of the book, Park doesn't have Eleanor's new phone number, and can't reach out to call her. Would we feel the same sense of drama if the two of them could just text each other at all hours? Probably not.
Which brings us to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1986. Rowell herself is from Omaha, and still lives there. She paints a picture of Omaha's neighborhoods, from "the Flats," where Eleanor and Park live, to the much more vibrant downtown, with its record and comic book shops. Eleanor and Park's neighborhood really contributes to the theme of being different which pervades this story. Park tells us:
If you weren't born in the Flats (if your family didn't go back ten generations, if your parents didn't have the same great-great-grandparents), you were an outsider. (37.7)
Eleanor and Park are outsiders in the Flats for different reasons. Eleanor's obviously not a native, and has spent some time away from the area. In Park's case, the Flats is an entirely white neighborhood, Park's mom being the exception to the rule, so Park definitely doesn't look like the other kids.
Park's family is also much better off than a lot of the other families—Eleanor feels like her family at least fits in there. "The only upside to living in this effed-up neighborhood was that everybody else was effed-up, too," she thinks. "The other kids might hate Eleanor for being big and weird, but they weren't going to hate on her for having a broken family and a broke-down house. That was kind of the rule around here" (21.121). Here, the Flats neighborhood helps us to understand the ways in which Eleanor and Park feel like misfits—or the unfortunate ways they fit in.
Even though this book is a total page-turner, with straightforward language anyone can understand, we think it's a little more challenging than it might seem. That's for two reasons: (1) The themes in the book can get pretty mature and upsetting, especially when it comes to anything involving Eleanor's stepdad; and (2) sometimes Rowell doesn't tell you everything point-blank, so you have to read between the lines a bit to really get what's going on.
Of course, it's all incredibly worthwhile, and Rowell's writing is so great that you may find yourself reading the book more than once, which is the perfect way to grasp all the subtle things packed inside this story.
Rainbow Rowell doesn't mess around in this book—she gets straight to the point. We don't have pages of flowery description here, or a lot of fancy language, and instead Rowell speaks like a teenager, letting her writing style reflect the youth and personality of her characters. She stays close to what her characters are thinking and feeling, and expresses it in a direct, often funny way.
Sometimes, Rowell even uses numbered lists to show Eleanor's thought process: "Eleanor considered her options […] 1. She could walk home from school […] 3. She could call her dad. Ha" (2.2-5). By using conversational language, humor, and slang, Rowell really nails the voices of her two protagonists.
For more on the style, be sure to check out the "Narrative Technique" section. The narration in this book is pretty unusual, and key to how the story is written.
So we really can't go any further without talking about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, can we? This symbol is so obvious it's like the flashing neon sign of symbols. How often do you have a book where the protagonists get together in an English class and discuss the very work of literature their own story brings to mind? We're beyond meta here, Shmoopers. (Incidentally, thanks for the helpful analysis, Mr. Stessman.)
References to the Bard's famous tragedy abound throughout the story. Near the end of the book, Eleanor even thinks, "Park is the sun," which is a direct reference to a famous line from Shakespeare's play. And earlier in the story, Park tells Eleanor, "Bono was fifteen when he met his wife, and Robert Smith was fourteen," to which Eleanor replies, "Romeo, sweet Romeo—". When Park says, "It's not like that, Eleanor, and you know it" (41.45-47), though, he's kind of right.
And that's the point: Rowell wants us to think about the ways this story is like Romeo and Juliet, along with the ways it's not. Yes, we've got a pair of star-crossed lovers, and their families are keeping them apart—well, Eleanor's family, mostly—but there are plenty of deviations, too. For instance, Park is the sun, but the girl—Juliet—in Romeo and Juliet gets this title, a little switch that clues us into Eleanor and Park's propensity for doing things their own ways.
There are big differences here, too, which is good since Eleanor and Park hate clichés; these two just aren't going to go the same route as Romeo and Juliet. No suicides here, folks, and though Eleanor and Park have to split up, their sacrifice is all about survival instead of death.
It all comes back to Eleanor and Park's classroom discussion about the famous play. Mr. Stessman remarks that Eleanor doesn't seem sad about Romeo and Juliet's tragic demise, and she tells him she doesn't think it's a tragedy. "He's so obviously making fun of them," she says (he meaning Shakespeare); "Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who've always gotten every little thing they want. And now, they think they want each other" (10.37-41). Eleanor isn't quite so convinced of their charms, it seems.
She even argues with Mr. Stessman: "It was love at first sight," he says, but Eleanor retaliates, "It was 'Oh my God, he's so cute' at first sight" (10.44-45). What does this say about Eleanor? Well, she's skeptical that love at first sight is even possible. The thing is, though, that Eleanor thinks about Park from pretty much the moment she meets him. So this discussion in class really makes us think about Eleanor and Park's first meeting, and how it might be different (or similar) to Romeo and Juliet's.
But Park has something to say about Romeo and Juliet, also. When Mr. Stessman asks Park why the play has survived for four hundred years, Park says, "Because people want to remember what it's like to be young? And in love?" (10.50) Wow. Well, there you go—Park's just put his finger on something this book has in common with the Bard's play. And also something that serves as a sort of dividing line for characters in this book: There are those who remember and value the experience of youth (hey, Park's parents), and those who are threatened by it (ahem, Richie).
Something also tells us that this whole remembering-young-love thing might be part of the reason Rowell wrote this book, too.
The Smiths. U2. Joy Division. Husker Dü. Elvis Costello. The first minute we meet Park, he's got his headphones on, lamenting that his choice of music (XTC) won't drown out "the morons at the back of the bus" (1.1). For Park, music is an escape and a total passion; it's a huge part of his life, from the way he dresses (band shirts, always) to his alphabetized tape collection. No surprise, then, it's also one of the ways he bonds with Eleanor, and their shared love of music is a huge aspect of their relationship.
But why this particular kind of music? What does it mean that Eleanor and Park love Joy Division, but not Top 40 radio? Back in the '80s, without YouTube and iTunes, finding new music was kind of like a treasure hunt. The music Eleanor and Park love—new wave, and in Park's case, punk rock—wasn't really mainstream.
When we first meet Eleanor, she's taken to writing names of songs on her books. Park thinks she's a fan of the bands, but it turns out Eleanor hasn't even heard the music. "It's more like a wish list," she explains to Park. "They're songs I'd like to hear. Or bands I'd like to hear. Stuff that looks interesting" (10.56-58). When Park asks why she doesn't just listen to them, Eleanor says, "It's not like they play the Smiths on Sweet 98" (10.62). So without a Walkman, batteries, and money for the record store, Eleanor's never had a chance to hear them.
So music, in this story, is all about discovery, connection, and bonding. Park's first tentative move, putting his own headphones on Eleanor's head without even touching her, bridges the gap between them. That first Smiths song breaks the ice, and from there, Park's mix tapes bring Eleanor something she's never had—not only new music, but a friendship with someone who cares enough to give her the batteries from his Walkman. Which, to Eleanor, is kind of a big deal.
Music isn't just a way to keep the world at bay, then—to aid in ignoring the kids at the back of the bus—but also a way to connect. And Park and Eleanor's tastes are just as quirky as they each are in their own rights.
Besides music, the other big catalyst for Eleanor and Park's relationship is comic books. Eleanor can't help reading Park's comic books over his shoulder, and Park notices. Then, because Park is awesome, he silently leaves her more comic reading material, and the two of them have entire comic-book exchanges without even speaking a word.
But comic books don't just give us a reason to swoon over the cuteness of Eleanor and Park (although, seriously, how cute are they about the comics?). Comic books in the '80s were another non-mainstream obsession, and the misfit characters in Eleanor and Park's favorite comics are understandably appealing to our misfit protagonists.
Before Eleanor, Park has only fantasized about comic book characters: "Maybe I'm not attracted to real girls,"he thinks. "Maybe I'm some sort of perverted cartoon-sexual"(15.41). When Eleanor enters the picture, though, Park replaces She-Hulk and Storm with… the real thing. Like, no problem.
See, back in 1986, we didn't have big blockbuster franchises for every Marvel comic—the only people who knew about the X-Men read the comic books. The X-Men comic is about outcasts, characters called "mutants" whose incredible abilities cause them social exile. "They're a metaphor for acceptance; they're sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them" (14.49), Park explains.
The X-Men is the first comic Eleanor and Park read together, and also the last one we see crumpled up on Eleanor's bed when Richie discovers Eleanor's secret. In a way, the story of Marvel's mutant superheroes seems to symbolize the love story of our very real teenage heroes—at the heart of both are outsiders trying to make their way through the world together.
Is Park ever going to learn to drive his dad's manual transmission truck? That's the burning question at Park's house, where Park's on the verge of earning his driver's license for months. Why all the focus on the stick shift? His dad's always concerned with teaching his sons all the stereotypical "manly" stuff—so in the Sheridan house, learning to drive stick is a symbol for becoming a man. Since Park's really not much of a traditional guy by Sheridan standards, though, he's not exactly eager to gain this skill.
Park does learn to drive stick eventually, though, and when he does, he's able to take the trust to drive Eleanor to the safety of her uncle's house. So though he's resisted this symbol of manhood by his dad's standard, ultimately it becomes a symbol of manhood for Park anyway. Stick shift: Making men out of boys whether they love sports of punk rock.
So the narrative technique is a really distinctive part of this book, isn't it? Though we're always one step removed from the characters—this ain't first-person, after all—we hop back and forth between narrators who are pretty tuned into Eleanor and Park's respective experiences, seeing their parallel experiences throughout.
What's the coolest thing about the way Rowell does this? She starts off giving each character longer sections, sometimes even entire multi-page chapters. Then, as Eleanor and Park get to know each other, she swaps narrators more often. And when Eleanor and Park are actually together in the same scene, sometimes she switches between them sentence-by-sentence.
It's a great way to show two characters coming together, and it's also an amazing way to show that one character's experience is sometimes totally different than the other character's experience, even in the same scene. Plus we get to spend enough time in both of their heads that by the end, it feels like we know Eleanor and Park each really well.
Misfit-high-schooler Park spots bully-magnet Eleanor on the morning bus and, to save her from certain torment, he grudgingly gives her a seat.
Eleanor's dealing with a horrifying home life, mostly due to her abusive stepdad, Richie. She starts to look forward to her bus rides with Park and, to her total shock, Park can't stop thinking about her either. Eleanor starts reading Park's comic books over his shoulder, and from there it's a slippery slope: music, mix tapes, hand-holding. Sparks fly, but they have to keep things secret: Richie would not be okay with this.
Eleanor and Park's romance reaches a crescendo of fireworks and violins, but they know it can't last. Eleanor comes home from one heavenly night out with Park and discovers that Richie's found her out.
Our star-crossed lovers, fearing for Eleanor's life, hatch a plan to get Eleanor to safety. Park borrows the family truck from his understanding parents and drives all night to Eleanor's uncle's house, where she thinks she can stay.
Eleanor and Park are heartbroken, but they learn to cope. Eleanor starts a new life living with her uncle, and though Park writes her tons of letters, Eleanor doesn't write back. Finally, months later, Eleanor sends Park a mysterious postcard. Maybe this isn't the end of their story? We hope it isn't.