Eleanor has bright red hair, and a horrible stepdad. Sometimes she has to come to school without washing her clothes. She is not traditionally beautiful, and she has definitely never had a boyfriend. Park likes to blend in. He has an understanding with some of the kids in his class that keeps him from getting picked on, and mostly he keeps to himself, spending the bus ride to and from school reading comics. When Eleanor first sits down beside Park on the bus, neither is thrilled to be stuck sitting with the other. Over time, though, the awkwardness of being seat partners morphs into the awkwardness of intense first love. It can’t last; their lives will never allow it. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try to preserve the one thing they both cherish over everything else.
I had decided not to read this book, but then my friend at work came in one day flailing with joy about it, and she forced me to take it home. Worried the story was a devastating tragedy a la The Fault in Our Stars, that would destroy me and make me cry, I sat down and read the entire book in one sitting. As it turns out, this is not a purely happy book, but it also didn’t destroy me, and though I planned to read the book in one sitting so as to protect myself from lingering in suspense, I can tell I would have wanted to read it all at once anyway, because it’s just that compelling.
I didn’t completely lose my mind over it like my friend did, but there are still a lot of reasons that I liked this book:
- Eleanor and Park are characters who could exist in day-to-day life. They have believable backstories, personalities, and fears. Their behaviors, while not always admirable, are what real people might do in their same situations, and their feelings for each other develop slowly and naturally as relationships often do for real teens (and adults.)
- It’s not a romance novel. So many love stories have the requisite romance novel happy ending, which can sometimes give romances a bad reputation with a lot of teenagers, who don’t buy into the sappy idealism of story after story where the hero and heroine always end up together. This book doesn’t make promises about the future. It follows these two very specific people as their paths come together and allows the story to unfold according to the motives, feelings, and circumstances of the characters involved, without trying to force a specific, prescribed ending. I found this very refreshing.
- It's set in 1986, but it's not about the 1980s, and it doesn't try to make the 1980s seem awesome to teens who were, by definition, not alive then. Unlike The Future of Us, it doesn't throw around pop culture references just for the sake of it, nor does the story work really hard at making us believe we're in the 80s. The story just happens to be set then, because that's when it happens, and I like that approach. I also like that the modern technology that might improve conditions for Eleanor or Park does not yet exist, so the love story is forced to evolve in secret, and in person, instead of virtually. I think that does a lot for the overall mood of the story, and it makes the ending that much more powerful.
- Rainbow Rowell makes great use of details. For example, there’s a point in the story where it is revealed that Eleanor does not own a toothbrush. Though Rowell doesn’t spell out the implications of such a problem, this fact stuck with me, and indeed worried me, as the story progressed. What if she and Park wanted to kiss? What if someone at school smelled her breath and made fun of her? How could she sneak a toothbrush into the house without her terrible stepfather finding it? This one piece of information told me so much about Eleanor’s life - much more than any other bit of exposition could have done. Rowell’s writing is so precise and evocative, that in just a few words, or with a few simple details, she paints a vivid, and sometimes haunting, picture.
I borrowed Eleanor & Park from my friend Christina, whose love for these characters is completely contagious.
For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.