Cute. A 19th century marquess, Nick, is caught up in a centuries-long conflict between two rival organizations for time-travelers. The Guild is establishment, working to prevent major changes in history and manage time-travelers’ use of and knowledge of time travel. The Ofan are underground, seeking to expand the known boundaries of time travel and disseminate knowledge to others of their kind. In the middle of all this, Nick, who has been living in the 20th century for ten years, falls in love with the 19th century Julia and must decide whether to adhere to 19th century standards in his treatment of her– despite his wish to take a very, uh, modern stance on the whole affair. Julia knows there is something strange about Nick, but has no idea he is a time-traveler. And she has secrets of her own.
The weight bearing down on everyone is the recent discovery that there is a date in the future past which no one can seem to travel, and it’s getting one day closer each day that passes.
I wished the book had a bit more grit or darkness to it, but I nevertheless enjoyed Ridgway’s conception of time travel, the romance-novelish relationship between Nick and Julia (sort of cheesy but in a fun way), and the quick-stepping plot, which trots out one predictable revelation after another with such light-heartedness and lack of pretension that I kept turning pages long after I should have been asleep. A really fun summer read with lots of loose ends for a sequel to tie up next summer.
I knew within the first 30 minutes of reading this that it would be one of the best things I read all year. Nora Eldrige, our narrator/protagonist, describes herself as “The Woman Upstairs,” the nice woman who does her work and always smiles and nobody thinks of much because there doesn’t seem to be much to her. But she is roiling with anger, both at her own mediocrity and her betrayal by the Shahid family. She meets the Shahids through their son, who is a student in her elementary school class. In different ways, she falls in love with all three Shahids: Skandar, the handsome academic, Sirena, the beautiful and bohemian artist, and Reza, their sweet, intelligent son. Her obsession with the Shahids will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever had even a platonic crush so painfully needy that it is inwardly humiliating. Something about Sirena, especially, makes Nora feel alive in a way she hasn’t in years, and she finally thinks that she will be able to reach a breakthrough in her own art, which she’s neglected in order to teach her class and care for her recently deceased mother.
Bur right from the beginning, Nora tells us that she never reaches this breakthrough, at least through her art:
I thought for so long, forever, that I was strong enough– or I misunderstood what strength was. I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, by plugging on… How strong did I think I was? No, obviously what strength was all along was the ability to say “Fuck off” to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all.
Instead, Nora will tell us the story of her relationship with the Shahids, hoping that if she “can just explain, all will be elucidated; and maybe that elucidation alone will prove my greatness, however small.” In the end, what Nora really elucidates is her self-pity and lack of self-awareness, but she is incredibly compelling if, like me, you recognize your own anger, neediness, and immaturity in her narrative. Nora, in all her injured self-esteem, is ironically egotistical. She possesses an adolescent obsession with being understood, and, drunk off the possibility that Sirena might see her as she has always wanted to be seen, Nora never actually sees Sirena for what she is until it is too late.
Even so, there is a measure of Nora’s anger that is justified. There’s a feminist angle to the book that will be apparent to those who understand the societal expectation that women be invariably pleasant and disinterested, especially if they don’t happen to be especially beautiful. More than once, Messud references Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and in doing so uses Nora to illustrate how women so frequently fall into the trap of appearing to be what different people want them to be, and in that respect, become invisible.
I read Eleanor and Park in less than 24 hours. If you read it, don’t make the same mistake I did by reading it in public. I was laughing so frequently on the subway while I read, that the woman sitting next to me asked me what I was reading, and I had to explain to her why it was so funny. I then made the mistake of finishing it on my lunch break, and had to go the restroom upon returning to my office because I was moved to tears.
Sometimes a book is great not because it tells us anything new, but because it describes something so true that we almost feel exposed. Eleanor and Park are teenagers in high school. Park is initially wary of Eleanor, whose arrival in Omaha threatens to throw off the careful balance he has cultivated on the fringes of the in-crowd: he’s not one of them, but he doesn’t get hassled, either. Slowly, his love of Eleanor becomes more important than his social standing, and eventually more important than anything else in his life, either. For Eleanor, Park is the only person she has ever loved who hasn’t been ruined by either her father or stepfather.
I don’t really know what else to say about it. I can’t trust myself to be objective or intellectual about this book in any way. It’s a very simple book with two recognizable, though blessedly original and lovable characters, who play out the stages and feelings of first love with astounding accuracy. The thing about falling in love for the first time is that you always think you’re the first person who’s EVER felt that way, but Rainbow Rowell demonstrates beyond doubt that we all have more or less the same emotions at some point in our lives. Far from being disappointed by this revelation, I found it rather lovely.