Fiction — audiobook. Read by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra. Listening Library, 2013. 8 hours, 56 minutes. Library copy.
After living on the couch of her mother’s best friend for a year, Eleanor’s step-father, Richie, has finally allowed her to back into the family home with her mother and four younger siblings. The whole family walks around on tiptoes around Richie — afraid of being hit, afraid of being banished from the house — and as much as Eleanor hates her step-father, she hates the idea of leaving her family more. So she does her best to stay out of Richie’s way, to avoid drawing attention to herself both at home and at school.
Unfortunately, Eleanor is a redheaded, overweight teenager who wears flamboyant and eclectically mismatched clothes she finds at Goodwill making her a perfect target for bullying. She’s never heard the songs or the bands her classmates talk about; she’s never read the comic books her seatmate on the bus, Park, owns.
Park, a biracial fifteen-year-old whose family has lived in the flats of Omaha for generations, became Eleanor’s seatmate rather begrudgingly. He snagged a seat to himself on the first day of school because of his social standing — not exactly popular, but not a target of bullying — and he only caved on letting her sit besides him because the bus driver was yelling and Eleanor was standing there so awkwardly that it was almost painful to watch.
When Park realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder on the rides to and from school, an unlikely friendship — and, later, romance — begins to bloom between these two. But their young love has to face to very adult problems — poverty, abuse, bullying, racism, gender conformity — and the two have to make very serious decisions about their future together and as individuals.
Listening to how these two quietly, slowly, sweetly fall in love is so heart-wrenching and beautiful. Nothing is rushed; nothing about the way they slowly fall in love seems childish or more like lust than love. It is one of those rare young adult books — or, even adult books — out there where I truly believe the characters love one another and understand each other and value the individual as well as the couple.
I tend to roll my eyes when I read reviews where people say the characters felt real (although, I know I’m guilty of doing this), but it’s hard to describe Eleanor and Park as anything else. While the problems they face are incredibly nuanced and complicated, their reactions and understanding of said issues is true to both their age and their outlook in life.
Park hates when his classmates make racist comments or jokes about him — asking him about monkey kong-fu, assuming he is Chinese as though that is the only Asian ethnicity — but he also goes home and feels shame and anger about the way his immigrant mother cannot shake her accent. It’s this duality, this blindness to how he’s internalized racism that adds realistic and much appreciated complexity to his character. And there are so many examples of this for Eleanor that it would be difficult to pick just one.
Told in alternating third-person voices, the novel switches point of view from Park’s perspective to Eleanor’s. I have struggled with this format in the past, but it was the perfect choice here as the switch allows the reader to understand Eleanor’s hesitation about telling Park about her home life or see how Eleanor gives Park the confidence to dress the way he wants. And, of course, getting to experience the awkwardness of a first relationship from both points of view adds the adorableness of the story.
Additionally, the decision to have two narrators — Rebecca Lowman as Eleanor and Sunil Malhotra as Park — brought this story to life in a way that never could have happened with a single narrator or, even, in print. I would happily listen to anything else narrated by Lowman or Malhorta based solely on their performances in this audiobook.
I won’t comment on the ending other than to say I wish this had been a selection for one of my book clubs. I would have loved to have discussed it at length with someone because, while I think the novel ended the only way it could, I also spent so much time tense and anxious that the ending felt — unsatisfying? Weak? I’m not sure of the right word to use.
Still, as I tweeted after finishing this novel, I simultaneously want to read all her books and stay far away from them because I was left with far too many feelings at the end. And that’s the best ending possible for any book.