Imagine you’re a fat girl, with bright red hair. Curly red hair. Today’s your first day at a high school in the Flats of West Omaha. You get on the bus and hope you can find a seat.
It’s like walking into a den of panthers. They can stare at you. Or they can just go ahead and sink in their fangs into your freckled skin. Which would you prefer?
But if you could just find a seat on the bus …
It might help if your clothes blended in a little better. But that “orange argyle sweater, way too big, . . . silky green tie and baggy painter’s jeans” — they’re gonna get noticed.
At last, a quiet Asian boy scoots over and shares his seat. You ride in silence, all the way to school.
Rainbow Rowell’s novel, Eleanor and Park, is a story of blooming friendship. As Park rides to school next to the strange new girl, he notices that she’s reading along in the comic book that lays open in his lap. Soon he brings a stack of comics for her to take home. Soon they trade tapes of ‘80s music (It’s OK. This is the ‘80s). Soon they talk all the way to school in the morning and all the way home in the afternoon.
Eleanor “wouldn’t talk about her family or her house. She wouldn’t talk about anything that happened before she moved to the neighborhood or anything that happened after she got off the bus.”
And for good reason.
Back at home, Eleanor’s mom has a new man. After school, Eleanor hustles to finish all her business before the new man comes home. Mom serves dinner. Eleanor takes her bath — in a bathroom that “barely counted. It was attached to the kitchen — like literally attached, without a door. . . . Somebody, probably her mom, had hung a flowered sheet between the refrigerator and the toilet.”
Then Eleanor and four of her siblings scurry into their shared room, like salt pouring back into the Morton canister, before Mom’s new man crosses the threshold and inflicts his riding-crop personality on the entire household.
As Eleanor and Park’s friendship (and maybe more?) grows, she visits Park’s house. “It was just too much. Meeting his pretty, perfect mom. Seeing his normal, perfect house. Eleanor hadn’t known there were houses like that in this crappy neighborhood—houses with wall-to-wall carpeting and little baskets of potpourri everywhere. She didn’t know there were families like that. The only upside to living in this effed-up neighborhood was that everybody else was effed up, too. The other kids might hate Eleanor for being big and weird, but they weren’t going to hate on her for having a broken family and a broke-down house. That was kind of the rule around here.”
What do Park’s parents — Mom is a Korean war bride, Dad looks like Tom Selleck — make of this strange girl? Well, mom would love to dig into her Avon-lady inventory and do something about those wild red curls. Will she force Eleanor to change?
And how true is Park’s friendship? Will he stick up for Eleanor in the school hallways when she scuttles her bedraggled self away from the latest cruel prank?
As for cow patties, the author wants to write a modern teen book, realistic and gritty. Therefore, she’s obviously driving the story toward Park and Eleanor “doing it.” She telegraphs the two or three problem scenes adequately. You can hop over them easily and not miss out on the sweetness in the rest of the book.
Bus exterior: ThoseGuys119 on VisualHunt / CC BY