I saw this book at my local library while I was browsing and it caught my attention, as I’ve liked other books by Rainbow Rowell that I’ve read. This one was no exception.
The blurb is as follows:
Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits-smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love-and just how hard it pulled you under.
New Girl at School
The year is 1986. Eleanor is the new girl at school with flaming red hair and clothes that, shall we say, are out of the norm. She’s the school outcast and is bullied at school because she’s a big girl who wears very odd, patchwork outfits. The first part of the novel takes place on the bus, where she sits next to Park, a somewhat geeky boy who ’s half-Caucasian and half Korean.
Days pass and they never talk to each other nor look at each other until one day Park notices that Eleanor is discretely reading his comics over his shoulder. He begins slipping her comics without saying a word, with her always returning them the next day.
A Relationship Develops
From this point, their relationship begins to develop slowly, with Park creating mixed tapes for Eleanor (remember mixed tapes?) and them slowing starting to talk to each other about comics and music. Eleanor is convinced that a boy like Park couldn’t possibly be interested in her but is surprised when they move to the hand-holding stage.
They both begin to look forward to the bus ride to and from school – the only time they get to spend together. I really loved watching the slow and tender relationship develop between them as they learned more and more about each other. Eleanor wavers between joy at having Park in her life and disbelief that he could actually be interested in her. It’s no surprise that, because of her home life, her self-confidence is lacking.
Eleanor’s Home Life
Sitting and talking with Park is the one bright spot in Eleanor’s life because she’s having kind of a tough time of it. Not only is she bullied at school (someone continues to write obscene messages on her school notebooks) but she lives at home with an abusive, controlling stepfather who barely provides for the kids’ needs, hence the patchwork and men’s clothes she has to wear to school. She and her siblings pretty much live in fear and poverty.
While at home, all her time is spent in her room, trying desperately to stay out of her stepfather’s way, who for some reason, seems to have it out for her. Park is unaware of her situation as it’s something that Eleanor never speaks of.
Park’s Home Life
Park’s world couldn’t be more different than Eleanor’s. His family is loving and supportive, though his father is somewhat challenged by Park’s individuality, especially the day he shows up at the breakfast table wearing eyeliner (his father didn’t speak to him for days afterward).
But it was apparent that both of his parents loved him. They also ended up welcoming Eleanor into their home, though his mother (a beautician) didn’t much care for her initially. It was nice to see how Park’s family warmed to Eleanor especially when they began to understand that she had a difficult home life.
I really fell in love with these two characters who were both shy, awkward outcasts and it was fun to observe their initial hostility to each other turned first into friendship then into something deeper as they became more and more comfortable with each other.
I felt the author did an excellent job of capturing that specialness and newness that we go through when experiencing love for the first time. I enjoyed the format of the book in which the author switches back and forth, via extremely short chapters, between Park’s and Eleanor’s point of view, so we really go to know each of the characters and observe what it is that makes them tick.
I can’t believe how much I adored both Eleanor and Park, how much I’ve cheered for them to get together, and how much I just… couldn’t put the book down, really.
Though this was a touching coming of age story of a sweet first love, it was also heartbreaking in places as we experience first-hand the horrendous home life that Eleanor had to endure. In this way, it’s the kind of story that’ll make you laugh and cry, and I did find myself tearing up on a few occasions while reading. This is a story that flows well with believable and likable characters.
I thought this book was beautifully written with authentic situations and dialog. For instance, the description of the first time they held hands was amazing — the intensity that both of them experienced from just this simple act. This scene brought me back to my teen years, as I recalled these exact same feelings the first time I held hands with someone I truly cared about.
I think that many people will be able to relate to the experiences that these two teens go through (I also remember making mix tapes for my first crush!). I felt that the relationship between Eleanor and Park built slowly, realistically and naturally. This is a story that flowed well with believable characters.
Eleanor & Park is a love story but with many other real-life issues thrown in. While the romance between them was sweet and I loved watching them fall more and more in love with each other, the story also dealt with several not-so-sweet themes such as bullying, child abuse, child neglect, social pressures and negative self-image. So while it’s a tender story of two teens falling in love, there’s also plenty of conflict from the outside world which made the book heart-wrenching in parts.
But I ended up loving every part of the story and am so glad I came across it. This book was fantastic… I loved how the point of view changed between the two main characters, I loved the drama, the slowly blossoming romance, the secrets they had, and the exciting indescribable feelings they experienced as their love blossomed. This story had just enough soft and hard to make it perfect — it was neither too mushy nor too gritty.
The writing was entertaining and sweet, with both humor and heartbreak. There’s something to be said about how an author manages to get me to read a 322-page novel in nearly one sitting. Recommended!