Rainbow Rowell pressed all my buttons. Too angsty, too faux-dramatic, too TMI, too ... teen-y. It's best that I return to my cave and continue to read material published for grownups.
But I can (try to) be fair. "Big" girl Eleanor -- new to school mid-fall-semester 1986 -- needs to find a seat on the bus. All the bus riders have long claimed seats according to school-bus hierarchy and Eleanor with her out-of-control red curls and odd wardrobe seems too weird to know. Park -- half-Korean and able to manage the bus's power crowd, but not really a part of it -- finally scootches over and gives her half the seat. This becomes Eleanor's permanent spot. As Park senses her reading his comic books over his shoulder, he sends her home with a copy; as she strains to hear the music playing on his Walkman, he makes her a mix tape. Over bus-ride-long conversations about books and music, they become friends. And once Park defends her from one of the delinquents ruling the back of the bus, they become a couple.
But Eleanor's got a horrible home life -- sharing a small house with her four siblings, her mother and her terrifying stepfather. Eleanor knows that she's got to keep Park a secret, but she also finds herself spending more and more time at Park's house, shyly enjoying his fractious yet loving family.
The novel nearly finishes out the school year and there are tears and kisses and humiliation (in a onesie gymsuit no less ... oh the horror) and misunderstandings and goings-on in the backseat of an Impala. Its ending is hopeful but not resolved. There are lots of references to music I only know in passing (I've talked about my musical failings here before) and this is the 1980s ... my peak music-listening years! The protagonists go on and on about their miraculous love for each other, and I was quite tired of their mooniness long before the end of the book, so I've got to remind myself that this isn't written for me. It's written for those who truly believe that they are the only ones who have ever fallen in love this way, god love 'em.
Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra. They are both very good, mining the emotional material of these two lovestruck teenagers. There are many, many words devoted to the tender wonder of their discoveries about each other and the narrators treat these with seriousness. They do a nice job of reproducing their counterparts' voices when they are reading dialogue. (Does that make sense? Lowman reads Park's dialogue with the rhythm and delivery that Malhotra creates and vice versa.)
Malhotra has a deep, resonant voice that sounds too old for a skinny 16-year-old, but I never doubted the authenticity of emotions that he brings to his reading. I found his characterization of Park's Korean-born mother a little too "flied lice" accent-wise. Surely, after nearly 20 years living in the US, she would not sound so fresh-off-the-boat. And Lowman portrays Richie as so purely evil that I could metaphorically hear the mustache being twirled. But he's written that way, so she couldn't do much.
I clearly am still cranky about reading books for teenagers. The last realistic teen fiction I listened to was this one five months ago, and I can't remember the last print one I read. I must make an attitude adjustment before trying again.
[The first song on the mix tape that Park makes for Eleanor is Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (completely unknown to me). Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1980 and this is the memorial stone no longer at the Macclesfield Cemetery (it was stolen in 2008). This photograph was taken by jayneandd and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Rainbow Rowell says this would be the tagline for her book, if it had one.]
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
Listening Library, 2013. 8:56