In Which I Shockingly Speak Up in Defense of Young Love

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Eleanor & Park

Rainbow Rowell

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Eleanor & Park is the sort of story that falls apart under scrutiny.

They’ll never make it. They’re already apart. Eleanor is a little too damaged and it’s only a matter of time before Park finds someone with less baggage.

Maybe they never actually loved each other, you know? Maybe Eleanor is right. It’s a mockery of love; of the idea that two people could feel so much and declare said feelings in unbelievable superlatives.

They fell in love too hard a little too fast to be believable.

Right?

But that’s exactly where critics of the novel are wrong. I think Eleanor & Park isn’t supposed to be a grand narrative on what love is and what it’s supposed to be.

Rainbow Rowell isn’t giving us her sweeping theories on love. Eleanor and Park are not supposed to stand in as definitive symbols of what Love is.

Listen. I’m old. I enjoy rolling my eyes at teenagers and their shallow drama. (Side note: I am not going to touch Eleanor’s family life with a ten-foot pole. Or twenty. Or thirty. I can go up to a hundred.)

But when you’re a teenager everything is apocalyptic.

It’s always the end of the world. Only with old age and much bitterness and heartache do you realize that all things can go to hell and yet you’ll always find some way to survive.

But none of that matters.

What matters is that as far as Eleanor and Park are concerned, it’s love.

It’s love in all its crazy messy painful beautiful glory.

As far as they’re concerned, this is it. This is the greatest, most powerful love in the universe.

That’s why the novel works. It doesn’t claim anything.

It just shows us two teenagers, coming from very different backgrounds and heading towards possibly very different adult lives.

Yeah, they might not make it.

Someday they might even look back on their crazy relationship and laugh at all the dorky superlatives and declarations of love.

None of that invalidates the fact that at this particular moment in time – the time captured in the novel – this is what’s real. This is love and it’s all they have.

When I was eleven I fell in love with a boy.

I think I’ve told this story before, but almost always the response is universal. It couldn’t have been love. You were eleven.

Some days I actually downplay it myself.

I couldn’t have been in love love, you know?

But reading Eleanor & Park I realized that there’s no reason to invalidate my eleven-year-old feelings.

I remember that tiny warmth, spreading from the innermost core of my being every time he smiled that stupid lopsided smile.

I still laugh — half fondly, half meanly — at his fear of citrus fruits.

I remember heartbreak. Someone had taken me by the top of my head and torn me into pieces. Like cheap art paper.

(I remember the exact moment a friend told me he told her he no longer liked me. I think I smiled through it but there was some kind of air pressure in my ears like in a plane and I could no longer hear people properly. I just smiled, I think. Like it was okay that someone had completely torn me up and taped me together with some parts missing.)

I wish I’d kept his one and only love letter. (That stupid scrawl. I would have treasured it.)

We never even held hands, you know?

And yet right now, I’m pretty sure it was love alright.

Maybe love manifests in a myriad ways, and there’s no “valid” versus “imagined” love. Maybe love is just love, even if other people think it’s stupid.

I will still make fun of teenagers. That’s the sort of award and power I get for being an old person.

But on occasion I will think back and remember my own version of crazy teenage love, back when I felt my heart alternately heal and break every time a boy — one who didn’t even hold my hand ever — smiled at/ ignored me.

Love is love, no matter how seemingly shallow and stupid when viewed from afar.

Maybe Eleanor & Park is an elaborate joke. Maybe it’s an in-depth and scathing rebuke of teenage shallowness. Maybe it’s a social commentary.

Who the fuck knows?

What matters is that for Eleanor and Park, it’s the greatest love story ever told.

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4 thoughts on “In Which I Shockingly Speak Up in Defense of Young Love

  1. “I think I smiled through it but there was some kind of air pressure in my ears like in a plane and I could no longer hear people properly.” –> This still happens to me, and we’re old. I love this entry!

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