Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell, is a 2013 YA novel about, as you might guess, two characters named Eleanor and Park, who seem at first to have little in common but end up meaning everything to each other.
It’s 1986, and Eleanor has just returned home after being kicked out of her house for a year by her drunkard stepfather, Richie. She’s been living with her aunt and uncle but Richie’s decided to let her move back in. She’s not sure why Richie had a change of heart, but she knows she’s pushed the hospitality of her aunt and uncle to the limit, and she’s missed her mother and four younger siblings. The house is in a poor area of Omaha known as the Flats (a real place), but even by the standards of the neighborhood it’s rundown and ramshackle.
On her first day of school, Eleanor gets on the bus and nobody wants to let this tall and chunky, weirdly dressed red-headed girl sit with them. Finally, Park feels sorry for her and makes room in his seat, though he puts on his earphones and refuses to talk to her. Park has a Korean mother and an American father, and his Asian facial features also make him stand out at school and in the Flats. Still, nobody messes with Park, because his father is obsessed with martial arts and has made Park attend Tae Kwon Do lessons since the age of five.
Eleanor continues to sit with Park on the bus, and though they still don’t speak, when he reads comics, she looks over and reads them too. Soon, he’s letting her borrow stacks of X-Men and Watchmen. Finally, they do begin to talk to each other, and Park makes Eleanor a mixed tape. He admires the way she speaks boldly in English class and wears whatever she wants. She admires the way he knows about music, books, and comics, and gets angry when he learns the girls in her gym class pick on her.
As their relationship turns romantic, things get worse at home for Eleanor, and she finds escaping to Park’s house for dinner to be a happy alternative to hanging around with the drunken, leering Richie. Eventually, her home situation comes to a head, but it’s nothing Park can help her with. Or can he?
Eleanor & Park is extremely well-written and emotionally intense. The worse things get at home for Eleanor, the more fervent her romance with Park becomes. That balance of extreme outside pressure on a teen that leads to intense bonds of friendship and love reminds me a lot of a John Green novel, and that’s a good thing, as he’s the reigning king of YA. (John Green’s Looking for Alaska was one of the first things I ever reviewed on this blog.) I should also mention there are parts that are quite funny, although overall it’s not a humorous novel. I’d recommend this book to any fairly mature teen looking for a beautifully-written but often emotionally draining story.