Romeo and Juliet is often the first Shakespearean play students read, partially because it’s one of his easier works to grasp (though your average eighth grader may find that hard to believe), but also because the star-crossed lovers are so young: Juliet is 13, and Romeo is not much older. But can young readers really get it?
Author Rainbow Rowell, former newspaper columnist and current copywriter for a design firm in Omaha, wasn’t a romantic as a teenager. “I think probably my path has been to become more of a romantic,” Rowell laughs. However, she still believes that every young love story is a variation of Romeo and Juliet.
“When you’re that age,” Rowell tells me over the phone in soft, measured words, “you have maybe the greatest capacity [for love]. You feel love with your whole body. You can be consumed by it in a way that you’re not when you’re older, and yet you don’t have anything to offer the other person. You don’t even belong to yourself yet. . . . You can’t make any promises.”
So why would Rowell write a love story—such as her new novel, Eleanor & Park, the story of two teen misfits falling in love in 1986—if she believes young love is destined for heartbreak? A different question is posed in Eleanor and Park’s English class, but the answer is the same: “Why has Romeo and Juliet survived for four hundred years?” Skeptical, ferocious Eleanor dismisses the play as “Shakespeare making fun of love,” but Park ventures a guess: “Because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?”
Eleanor is the new girl at school, and her shock of red hair and weird clothes make her an easy target for her classmates’ derision. Park is a Korean-American punk rocker who offers her a seat on the bus—albeit scornfully, at first. Aided by comic books and ’80s mix tapes, the two begin to bond. Revealed through segments written from alternating perspectives, their tenuous friendship explodes into a first love that is romantic but never romanticized, complete with awkward moments and misconceptions. The interchanging voices expose Eleanor and Park’s intimate, raw emotions.
Their love doesn’t defy stars or make the moon envious. It is reticent and tentative, but also immersive and thrilling—and therefore heartbreakingly familiar. “True love can conquer all,” says Rowell. “I do think they’re truly in love. That’s the tragedy of being them. They’re too young. They don’t have anything.”
The breathless first moments of love, such as the tenderness of holding hands for the first time, have a submerging effect on the reader. These moments often go on for several pages, conveying all the precious flutters of a “first.”
“The first time I held someone’s hand, it was like stars going off. Not stars—bombs, maybe,” Rowell says. “I’m not going to speed past these feelings. I’m going to let these two characters really think about them the way you do when they happen to you. You’re not just like, ‘Oh, he held my hand,’ and then you move on. In the moment, you’re dazed. You’re reeling.”
Eleanor and Park come from starkly different backgrounds, but their respective concepts of relationships are greatly influenced by the adult world around them. Eleanor’s cynicism, in a reflection of Rowell’s own difficult childhood, stems from a terrifying home life, where love is temporary and the threat of her stepfather steadily darkens as the narrative progresses. Park, on the other hand, is overwhelmed and intimidated by the intensity of his parents’ love.
“As a teenager, you kind of want your parents’ relationship to be invisible,” says Rowell. “You want your parents to move into the background—like it’s your turn.”
Rowell wishes she had “had something that intense at that age,” but her own love story warrants mentioning. In seventh grade, during her “yucky years” with a bad stepdad, she found refuge in a group of “nerdy guys” who played Dungeons & Dragons and loved comic books, guys who helped shape the character of Park. One of them ended up becoming her husband after they graduated from college; they’ve been married now for 14 years and have two boys, ages 4 and 8.
“I believe really strongly that men are good,” Rowell says. “There are men who want love and who care and are sensitive to the same degree as women, just differently. . . . I hope when girls read [this novel], they believe that there are guys like Park out there.”
Eleanor & Park, much like Romeo and Juliet, should be read twice: once in youth, before that first love, and again after experiencing love’s ability to transform and consume. After all, as Rowell says, “You get beginnings when you’re 17, not endings.” It is that same optimistic spirit that suffuses Eleanor & Park and makes it a celebration of all the joys and sorrows of young love.