A review of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Published 2013, St. Martin’s Griffin
If you talk to a man in a language
he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his own language,
that goes to his heart.
I think it works the other way around, too. As I write/speak in a foreign language, such as I do now, I am generally using my head. But when I use my beloved Filipino, then I can easily speak to you from my heart. I feel so strongly about Eleanor & Park that I have to plan this review around 3 hard-to-translate-into-English Pinoy terms.
(1) kilig: n. an intense joy, usually related to a romantic encounter, that manifests physically through supremely silly seemingly-permanent smiles and a buzzing tickling of the spine.
I read this book during a flight, and thank god I was in a window seat and able to hide my face, because I swear I would have been kicked off the plane—in midair—if the flight attendants saw me, smiling in a way that could only have been interpreted as crazy. I couldn’t have possibly helped it, because there were just too many kilig moments in this book. Yes, some were downright cheesy, but don’t you think that when non-cheesy people do cheesy things, the things just naturally metamorphose into goddamn sweet?
It also didn’t help that the story used alternating first person POVs, and both character narrators didn’t mince words in trying to express their kilig. As a reader, my kilig was happening on three different levels: that of relating to the character’s romantic urges; that of relating to the character’s realization that his/her urges are, in fact, requited; and that of a witness to a developing romance between two people whose happy ending I was seriously rooting for.
(2) na-develop: v, colloquial. to unwittingly, and therefore helplessly, fall in love with someone little by little.
The funny thing is, the book starts with the two characters consciously and determinedly deciding to disassociate from the other. Then as they acknowledge each other’s existence, little by little, they realize that they actually have some things in common, such as being in honors classes, and living in constant fear of being picked on by school bullies.
It was a great thing to see unfold. From that moment Park realized that “[s]he was reading his comics” and Eleanor realizing that the “stupid Asian kid totally knew” and was so polite that he even looks at her before turning the page, to not talking while lending cassette tapes and comic books, to when they first held each other’s hands on the bus. I mean, Rainbow Rowell, are you totally kidding me with that scene?
He was still holding the end of her scarf, rubbing the silk idly between his thumb and fingers. She watched his hand.
If he were to look up at her now, he’d know exactly how stupid she was. She could feel her face go soft and gummy. If Park were to look up at her now, he’d know everything.
He didn’t look up. He wound the scarf around his fingers until her hand was hanging in the space between them.
Then he slid the silk and his fingers into her open palm.
And Eleanor disintegrated.
Again, kilig. Right? This high school romance is peppered with scenes like this, played out from the point of view of someone so obviously in love, where every little detail—her freckles, the texture of his skin, the smell of her hair, the wrinkly edges of his smiling eyes—is described as if it were the most important thing in the world. Le sigh.
(3) diskarte: n. one’s own, planned, special manner of going about things to achieve a desired goal.
I really appreciate that in this story, even Eleanor had her own diskarte when it came to the fact that she wanted to be with Park. It isn’t your typical gender-biased relationship where the boy has to make all the moves, while the girl just basically waits for that to happen. Eleanor was an active character in their relationship, and was a strong enough character to demand the kind of relationship and treatment she deserved. Brave little woman she was, that even beyond her relationship with Park, she decides that she is entitled to make certain choices in and for her life.
Another diskarte I have to laud, is the author’s handling of the issues in this story. Think of this: Eleanor is stuck in an abusive home and Park is half-Asian, but the story largely remains a love story. Though the domestic abuse constantly pushes and bursts through the surface and Park mentions how culturally unrepresented he feels because of his race, Rowell deftly maneuvers through these plot points without turning the whole thing into a story about abuse and/or racism. [UPDATE: To understand more of what I mean by this, here is Patrick Ness talking about Crappy Books About Important Things.]
The book properly recognizes that Eleanor fears for herself and for her family and that Park is rightly bothered by how ignorantly racist other people are, and thoroughly illustrates that either situation should not be belittled or ignored, all the while maintaining that this is a romance novel. It’s a love story, where one character just happens to have an asshole for a stepfather, just as the other character just happens to be Asian.
And as I’m Asian as well, it feels really good, to see an Asian character in a book such as this, where the character is not exoticized and where his main problem is not stemming from the fact that he’s (part) Asian. Going beyond that, it feels really good to find one’s self in a great story such as this, being successfully carried through the vivid memories, emotions, and intricacies of falling in love, and being loved in return, for the very first time.
* [Eleanor] rolled her eyes again. She knew Mr Stessman’s game by now.
‘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.’
‘They’re in love …’ Mr Stessman said, clutching his heart.
‘They don’t even know each other,’ she said.
‘It was love at first sight.’
‘It was “Oh my God, he’s so cute” at first sight. 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,’ she said.