As everyone knows, many books don’t live up to their hype (ahem, Girl on the Train), and being a New York Times bestseller does not guarantee good writing, so I was a little skeptical regarding the much raved about Eleanor & Park. Friends, do not make the same mistake! This novel is a wonder.
The story starts on an Omaha school bus where a couple of reluctant seatmates meet for the first time: Eleanor, the new kid who stands out like a beacon with her wild red hair, generous proportions and thrift store style. And Park, an almost-pretty, half-Korean boy who manages to get by socially, but never really feels like he fits in. Gradually, Eleanor and Park, who are both sixteen, bond over comic books and great 80’s music. Somehow author, Rainbow Rowell, manages to avoid all of the usual clichés and has written the most authentic and affecting “first love” story I’ve read in a very long time.
Eleanor & Park is a novel where there are complications, of course, and they come from all angles. Eleanor has a disturbing home life where poverty and an abusive stepfather take their toll. On Park’s side, his well-meaning parents and less well-meaning friends at school present obstacles to their budding relationship.
Technically, this is a YA title, but fear not, grown folks: the writing is excellent and the themes are extremely adult, even though the main characters are not. Plus, it takes place in 1986 and feels geared towards the adult readers that will most appreciate certain pop culture references (Park’s father looks like Tom Selleck!).
At its heart, this is a story about a pair of young misfits figuring out their own identities and falling in love. Rowell handles the anxiety and awkwardness, intensity and exhilaration of being this age in a way that is pure magic. Eleanor & Park sent me back in time to my own high school days, except that reading it now in my thirties I developed a distinct crush, not on Park, but on Park’s dad.