Everybody remembers their first love, the first person that made their stomach jump into their throat. That person causes their heart rate to one of two things: triple in speed to the point where you may question if you have a heart condition, or skip a beat making you question whether or not you died and went to heaven for that split second. You remember it almost as well as you remember the most important day of your life (ie. wedding day, birth of your child, graduating, finding that perfectly ripe avocado at the supermarket). You remember just as well as you remember the main plots points of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This, my friends, is the feeling of reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park.
Eleanor & Park is about a red-headed girl (Eleanor) who transfers to a new school and is forced to sit beside a half Korean half Irish boy (Park) on the bus before and after school every school day. They become friends with very minimal verbal exchange and through reading comic books and listening to music together, they begin to fall in love with one another. Each person brings their own baggage into the mix to stir up some yummy character analysis and relationship dynamics on all fronts to end with an unfortunate conclusion (this is not a spoiler, the first few pages of the book already elude to the fact that Eleanor is no longer in Park’s life).
In the beginning of the novel, Eleanor and Park’s English teacher tries to provoke the class into showing an interest in Shakespeare. In a young love story, it seems only fitting to mention one of the world’s greatest and tragic love stories of all time. It allows us to peer into the psyche of the character who are going to fall madly in love with one another. See who is the romantic and who is the cynic. Eleanor (labelled here as the cynic) brings a very interesting argument:
“Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they wanted. And now they think they want each other […] If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love.”
Well now, I believe Eleanor just answers one of the hardest questions I had to answer in high school with such ease and finesse. Of course they aren’t in love. They are spoiled rich kids who made bad decisions for the sake of them quenching their sexual thirst for one another. Of course Shakespeare takes it to an extreme and kills a few people, but the point is that on the outside, love looks like this ridiculous immature disillusioned state of being that leads to only bad news bears. On the inside, love (or at least when you first “fall in love” or enter the “honeymoon stage”) feels like an urge to do everything you want with this person. You would do anything in order to be with this person and to make them happy. Eleanor rejects this romanticized idea of love (and truthfully this statement on our beloved R&J can be a scholarly essay on it’s own!). Perhaps that is because she never thought that this kind of feeling could be real, at least for her.
When Eleanor and Park do fall in love and begin to hand hold on the bus rides, Rowell uses the power of narrative to get into the brains of each character. The same scene, two brains and two minds. Park cherishes every moment as he touches her curly red hair and as he interlaces his fingers with hers. He says the L-word to her after such a short time and he barely knows anything about her. He would die without her. A true Romeo. Eleanor tries to calm herself everytime Park touches her, feeling electricity in every place Park touches her skin. She feels like she wants to have his babies; she wants to give him her kidneys if he needed them. She creates elaborate lies to tell her family in order to keep her relationship with Park alive. The same Eleanor that scoffed at the notion of Romeo and Juliet being a tragic love story finds herself falling in love with a boy in less than a couple months.
All of this spending time together, learning about one another’s pasts, falling in love, this is the bulk of Rowell’s novel. There are of course other characters in this story: parents, friends, enemies, siblings, uncles, cats, but they only make brief appearances. We don’t hear much about them outside of what the title characters think or say to them. Even our lovers seem to diminish behind the love they have birthed into this Utah suburb.
The main character isn’t Eleanor, nor is it Park, but they play quite the supporting roles. The protagonist is intangible but you cannot deny its looming presence. Our “hero” is the actual relationship between our two “lovers”. We witness the birth on the bus of this awkward silent love, who learns how to communicate and grow through the ups and downs of its life. We see how the relationship made from one half cynical sarcastic attitude and one half indifference and thirst for normality meld into this being of truths, fears, and goals. And when the relationship dies, when Eleanor and Park are driven away from one another, that is where the real story ends. The story ends in a mere few pages after their separation. The rest of the novel turns into nothing more than a few tidbits of here is Park now and here is Eleanor now. The relationship has died and the other characters are left to mourn its death.
We as readers can say we relate to either Eleanor’s sad abusive hopeless life more than Park’s content ‘get-in-no-one’s-way-or-business’ mentality, or vice versa. Or we may relate to Eleanor’s mom’s mission to keep this family together despite the hardships. Or Cal’s need to have a date. Or even Park’s mother who only wants her son to date a nice girl. But the one thing we will all relate to is the feeling of your first love. The overwhelming feeling of not being able live without the other and the feeling that we are each other’s entire world. The overwhelming feeling of electricity every time our loved one even touches our hand. Rowell ignites a sense of nostalgia into her readers.
In the same English class to which Eleanor reveals her cynicism, the teacher then asks Park why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has survived 400 years: “Because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love? […] Is that right?”
Right Park. You sure are right.