Monday, April 21, 2014

All Eleanor Could Think About Was Seeing Park

Eleanor & Park
~Eleanor & Park~
By Rainbow Rowell
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

Eleanor... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.

Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Another 'contemporary' YA romance set in the mid-1980's, another book that took me forever to review. As I said with my last contemporary romance, I feel very out of my element here. This book in particular left me rather raw, making my thoughts even more jumbled than usual. Add in a straightforward plotline full of spoiler-bait, and I'm left will fairly little to say.

But here goes nothing.

Eleanor is not your typical YA protagonist, or at least not like any one I've read recently. She's headstrong, introverted, guarded, overweight, smart, and, with her flyaway hair and mismatched clothes, not on the road to popularity any time soon. Add in a bus full of bullies and a family life I wouldn't wish on anyone, and she's got quite the full plate to contend with. Between sharing a gender and having a few other details in common, I related with her a lot, which made her story all the more gripping and devastating for me. She goes through a lot of very dark stuff, and it broke my heart to know just how plausible it was. But at the same time it made me all that more hopeful and happy for the good things. Eleanor's story is about overcoming her insecurities and a horrible situation.

And so, from my perspective, Park was like a knight in shining armor. He's a bit more social but still mostly introverted, athletic, smart, popular enough to get by okay, comes from a fairly typical middle-class family, and a bit rebellious. In short, he was everything a girl would want, and everything Eleanor needed. I don't know, perhaps he would read differently from a guy's perspective, but he read as almost too perfect at times. But maybe I'm just being too cynical about romance in general. Park's story is mostly about overcoming his own insecurities and becoming comfortable with himself. Yeah, sorry, but he's the one who's got it easy in this story.

As the title suggests, this book stars both Eleanor and Park as main characters, which means both have time as the book's narrator. Unlike some books, narrator swaps are not confined to the ends of chapters. Instead, switches between the two's perspectives are handled through large breaks with the next section headed by that narrator's name, and these can occur once or many times during a chapter. At some parts, narration swaps go back and forth rapidly, after only a sentence or two. These swaps not only allow for the perspective change and equal screen time between the characters, but also add to the tone of the piece, adding frenetic energy, humor, or empathy simply with a well-timed switch.

Putting aside my cynicism for the time being, I thought the romance was well developed, well paced, and utterly adorable. Both parties are pretty reluctant to go into it at first; one because of the ramifications on his place in the proverbial food chain, and the other because of having enough on her plate already. And the romance is anything but smooth sailing, with both having to fight their own insecurities and common sense saying first love is pointless. But really, isn't it all the more satisfying when there's real effort put in? If it wasn't for all that other stuff Eleanor had to deal with, I'd be jealous. Okay, I'm still a little jealous.

On the topic of that other stuff, I do have to say I found the bullying a bit extreme. I got bullied about my weight in middle school, but never on the scale (God, no pun intended) that happened in this book. Perhaps it's a reflection on the times (90's vs 80's), perhaps it's different at that age, or perhaps these characters are just that cruel, but that was the one thing that kinda had me questioning that reality.

Granted, I'm far from an expert on that reality. Heck, I was born the year this novel takes place. I don't know any of the music (of which there is a lot) they listen to, the TV-shows they watch, nor the 'popular' styles of clothes. I don't know how schools were run, how it is to grow up in a mixed-race family, nor how it is to live with domestic abuse. But I connected with the characters enough that they brought me into their worlds. I may not be able to tell you how authentic the characters and situations actually are, but I know how they felt. And for me, everything felt real.

Overall, I found Eleanor & Park to be an endearing story. I'd definitely recommend it to fans of contemporary romance, or those who enjoy YA and are looking for an easy first step into the contemporary genre. With quite a bit of language, a couple sexual situations, and general coming-of-age material, I'd put this firmly in the high school and up range. Part feel-good romance, part coming-of-age story, and part insight into an unfortunate dark reality, Eleanor & Park should be on the list of anyone looking for a sweet, quirky, down-to-earth romance.

Approximate Reading Time: 4 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Rebecca Lowman & Sunil Malhotra
Length: 8.9 Hours
Listened at 2.3x Speed

I always love full cast audios. And though this wasn't technically 'full cast,' I did appreciate having the male and female narrators for the male and female characters. However, I did think it got quite redundant having each of their sections starting with the character's name. Each part narrated by Eleanor starts, "Eleanor," and each part from Park's perspective starts, "Park." But when you have the dual narrators, it should never ever be a question of whose perspective it is, and repeating the names over and over again gets extremely tiresome, especially when the switch occurs rapidly during very intense romantic sections. For the audio, I wish they had left out the section/character names completely.

Other than that hiccup, it was a very nice production. Both readers did a great job with multiple character voices, including the other person's, and both were completely understandable. I did feel a little awkward about the voice of Park's strongly Asian-accented mother, but since it fit the writing and both readers treated it equally, I eventually got over it. Overall, a fine audio which I would recommend to beginners and seasoned audiobook listeners alike. Definitely check it out for yourself.