In a time when teens can barely imagine a world without texting and Facebook, and where people are more likely to send a smile on Snapchat than on the bus, Eleanor & Park provides interesting commentary on what has now become “old-fashioned” romance, and the temporary nature of first love.
There are a lot of wonderful things about Eleanor & Park. The hard-hitting yet appropriate portrayal of Eleanor’s abusive home life, the many references to good music and interesting pieces of literature (my personal favourites were Joy Division and Watchmen), and the quick and sassy dialogue between the title characters. However the most impressive part of the story for me was that the two teens did not end up together. Eleanor frequently protests to poor naive Park that it’s not like we’re going to get married or anything. And Park perfectly exemplifies what it’s like to be a teenager in love: stupefied and brave as hell. But Eleanor was right. Eventually all that’s left of their relationship is a memory.
This concept of permanence is especially interesting since it is set in an internetless world. Rainbow Rowell is very conscious of technology’s impact on romance: her “adult” novel Attachments features a young man who’s new job as a security monitor requires him to read the e-mails of his co-workers. Inevitably he falls in love with a woman he barely interacts with in the “real world,” all thanks to the wonderful world wide web (as a side-note: fans of Eleanor & Park should give Attachments a try – it’s just as hilarious and sneaky and heartfelt. And look out for her upcoming 2014 release Landline, which seems to promise an exploration of various technologies and something sort of like time travel).
Next to Attachments, Eleanor & Park may seem starkly archaic. Park can’t even call Eleanor on the phone! Eleanor has the option to ignore Park’s snail mail forever, and if she wants to remember what he looks like she has to pull out a hardcopy photograph. Had Eleanor & Park been living in the 21st century, it’s likely that much more would have been left of their relationship: Facebook statues, blog posts, pictures, tweets, e-mails, IM conversations. An electronic “paper trail” of young love. Come to think of it, if both of them could find access to a computer, Skype may have prolonged their inevitable break-up a few months. But Rainbow Rowell creates a 1986 story-world where the struggles of “irl” love are emphasized, and the somewhat unrealistic expectations of young love are harshly shut down.
I imagine that many young people were upset by the hyperrealistic, unhappy ending of Eleanor & Park. I also imagine that Rainbow Rowell knew exactly what she was doing. A realistic teen love story is one where the 15 year-olds break up. This directly opposes stories like Twilight, where the teenage girl turns herself into a vampire so she can spend eternity sipping blood with her favourite high school boyfriend.
The YA Literature scene needs more books like Eleanor & Park: delightfully heartfelt and realistically tragic.