Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell begins in August 1986 when Eleanor Douglas returns home after a year spent living with family friends after her stepfather, Richie, kicked her out of her Omaha home. This is not a sweet homecoming story. Eleanor’s family lives in poverty under Richie’s abusive eye, scraping by on very little and tiptoeing around Richie’s temperamental moods.
When Park Sheridan first sees Eleanor on the bus to school being denied a seat by the other kids, he pities her but also thinks she’s asking for the negative attention. Her flame-red hair and curvy figure already make her stand out among the beefy jocks and big-haired popular girls, but her habit of wearing men’s clothes and various trinkets only makes her more of a target. Park has felt like an outcast in the neighborhood he and Eleanor inhabit because he’s half-Korean. The only thing keeping him from merciless bullying is that he’s queen bee Tina’s ex. Park allows Eleanor to sit with him because he can’t stand seeing her look pathetic, and feels for her situation. He eventually notices Eleanor glancing at the comic books he reads on the bus, and soon reading together on the bus becomes a daily activity for the unlikely pair. Friendship between the two grows slowly as they start to talk to each other and find out they have a lot in common. Besides enjoying comics, they have a similar taste in music and start listening to Park’s mix tapes on the way to school.
Without warning, Eleanor and Park realize they have feelings for each other. Heart-rending, soul-crushing, all-enveloping feelings. However, they have to overcome their awkwardness, self-consciousness, family strife, and other roadblocks to their happiness together. Can they make it work?
This may seem like the summary of any number of Young Adult novels, but the issues this book tackles sets it apart. Eleanor’s home life is bleak. Her mom and siblings live in fear of Richie, yet have been Stockholm Syndromed into taking his side against Eleanor. She sneaks in quick baths because Richie took the door off the bathroom, shares a room with her siblings, and does her best to avoid her stepfather’s wrath. The littlest thing can set Richie off, like not having pumpkin pie at Christmas. Eleanor keeps her relationship with Park a secret out of fear of Richie’s possible response.
This complicates the budding relationship as Eleanor lies to her family about where she is when she goes to see Park. Having grown up with an absentee father, a weak mother, and an abusive stepfather, Eleanor’s self-esteem is astoundingly low. She hates her full figure and doesn’t understand how Park sees anything admirable in her. She envies his loving parents and normal home life, and feels out of place hanging out in his home.
Park has survived by flying under the radar. He knows he’s lucky he escaped bullying thanks to his ex’s social standing because being half-Korean sets him apart from everyone else. He questions his attraction to Eleanor and wonders if dating someone who’s such an easy target will ruin his reputation. Through their relationship, Eleanor gains a little more confidence and Park begins to show his true personality without worrying what others will think of him.
I loved how Rainbow Rowell captured the awkwardness and passion of the early stages of a relationship. Eleanor and Park don’t even realize they’re falling for each other as they discuss the latest issues of Watchmen and make mix tapes of The Smiths and The Beatles for each other. They suddenly realize they look forward to seeing each other on the bus every day. Making tiny moves like holding hands are monumental in their eyes. Passionate meaning fills every action. Just being in each other’s presence is intoxicating. Eleanor and Park struggle with letting down their barriers and learn that putting aside their pride is a crucial part of being in a relationship. It’s hard to let someone in, to open up the most vulnerable and imperfect parts of yourself to another person, especially when you’re a teenager. Their desire to be together increases the more they’re forced to be apart, and you can feel their yearning for each other.
The portrayal of bullying sent me right back to middle school and early high school. I was never bullied quite as badly as Eleanor, but some of the comments and snickers Eleanor endures struck home for me. Like Park, I shrank back and tried to be as invisible as possible until I more or less left alone. It’s painful seeing Eleanor tormented at school and at home, and when Park finally starts to stick up for her it made me wish I had a Park when I was in school.
Rowell gradually gives us information about Eleanor’s and Park’s home lives, and when the pieces all come together, it’s rewarding for the reader. When we first meet Eleanor we don’t know why she was kicked out of the house, we don’t understand why she’s cautious around her stepdad, or why she’s distant and constantly pulls away from Park. Park’s home life is far less complicated or depressing as Eleanor’s, but after seeing his parent’s personalities and their dynamic, it helps us better understand Park’s desire to fit in. Each parental figure is unique from the others with their own personality and influence in the story. Many YA novels leave parents out of the story completely, mention them in passing, or give them bare bones characterization. As much as teenagers want to distance themselves from their parents, parents still play a huge role in their children’s development and I liked seeing fully fleshed-out parental characters. It’s easier to tolerate a brooding teen character when you see her mother prioritizing her abusive husband over her kids. The characterization of the parents lent more depth to the story.
I enjoyed the authenticity of the characters’ experiences, both positive and negative. Rowell portrayed a moving tale of domestic abuse, young love, and finding courage within yourself. Eleanor and Park isn’t your typical pretty YA romance. It has grit, rough edges, and a dorkily imperfect couple, and that’s what made it such an enjoyable read. Geeks in love versus the world.
Rating: 4 out of 5 New Wave mixtapes
2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge Categories: A YA Bestseller, A New York Times Bestseller