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Reading Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl last fall was like re-visiting college with all of the new faces and anxiety of not knowing where anything is, and none of the actual work. Rowell’s writing blew me away because it’s so natural and warm without seeming like its trying to be. I loved it and instantly regretted starting with what I assumed must be the author’s best book.

Six months later, I finally read Eleanor & Park and it just doesn’t seem fair. How can one human put out two books in one year that are so good you wish they were edible so you could consume them completely? The power must be in her magical name. It’s the only logical explanation.

Eleanor and Park

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park is a realistic story about first love between two Nebraskan teenagers in the mid-1980s. Eleanor moves to town to live with family and her nasty stepfather after crashing on a neighbor’s couch the previous year. Her family is poor and now living in the stepfather’s tiny ramshackle home. She sleeps on the top bunk in a closet-sized bedroom she shares with her many siblings. This sounds bleak, but Eleanor herself is a shining light of intelligence.

Eleanor and Park sort of meet on the school bus. He scoots over when nobody else will and those inches of seat change everything for both of them. Oh, Park. I would’ve adored Park even if he didn’t remind me of my nephew. Park likes punk, reads comic books, practices karate and has no interest in the evil pretty girls breaking a sweat to make Eleanor’s life a little more hellish. That he’s half Korean sets him apart from his primarily white classmates in mostly subtle ways, but Park puts effort into fitting in. Eleanor doesn’t.

Here we get two characters unique to their town, and even more unique on the YA fiction shelf. Eleanor sees herself as fat and others tease her for her wild, curly red hair. She wears what she likes and what she likes doesn’t come from the little miss department – pieces of fabric tied around her wrist, patched pants, funky things in her hair. To Park, she’s beautiful, curvy and luminous. He sees her as she really is, caring, smart, physically attractive, funny and strong. It’s so refreshing to read a story that allows its characters to define their own perception of beauty. It gave this love story the completely one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime feel it deserved.

Eleanor and Park’s friendship forms so slowly neither is willing to admit it’s happening at first. You find yourself sighing and laying back every time you pick it up.

Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heart beat. Like holding something complete and completely alive.

Eleanor’s life isn’t easy. She takes refuge in Park, falls in love with him and he with her. Seeing them relate through each other’s eyes makes you feel you’re part of the relationship, like a silent partner. You get separation anxiety at the end, then sadness when you’re forced to acknowledge Eleanor and Park aren’t real no matter how much you want them to be.

Park had the sort of face you painted because you didn’t want history to forget it.

I knew I’d like and probably love this book. Still, I wasn’t prepared for how fully I fell into it and how hard I wanted it to be a 7-book, 800-pages each series with at least one spin-off. My only gripe is I read this one too fast. I was happy to hear it was optioned AND Rowell is writing the screenplay so it’s bound to be good. Now if I can just figure out how to get my nephew cast as Park…

Judy Blume  takes care of girls as they move through childhood and enter adolescence. Now young women have Rainbow Rowell to help guide them through first love, first heart break and that daunting first year of college. Lucky ducks.

I used to be all about those fatty drink treats on bad days, or to get through the work day when I had jobby jobs I disliked. Now I think Rainbow Rowell books are the way to go when you need a treat, a re-booting reminder that life is full of possibilities. Too bad there are only three of them! Her next book, Landline, is due out in July so we don’t have to wait long for our next pick-me-up.

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