Eleanor has a mop of flaming red hair, wears boys’ clothes, and is the very best at reading aloud in her English class. Park is half-Korean, loves reading comic books, and can never quite seem to win the approval of his military father. Neither quite fits into their high school class, but throughout the course of the novel, they discover that the best place to be is in one another’s company. While a somewhat predictable romance, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park is a touching read guaranteed to make readers smile.
Set in the late 1980s, Eleanor and Park explores the impossibility and hope associated with young relationships. The two meet one day on the bus—a microcosm of the social hierarchy associated with high school—and slowly ease into a relationship of shared comic books, mixtapes, and Monday traditions. One theme beautifully illustrated within the pages is parents’ pivotal role in young relationships. Park’s mom from Korea is initially very skeptical of Eleanor, and Eleanor’s stepdad nearly ruins their relationship. As Park and Eleanor’s relationship becomes more serious, Park’s parents serve as a beacon of hope for Eleanor’s poverty-stricken family.
Rowell does a surprisingly nice job weaving humor into each and every chapter. From Eleanor’s outfits (think curtain tassels as hair accessories and men’s golf shoes with the spikes still attached), to Park’s descriptions of his mixed-race parents (“It was like watching Paul Bunyan make out with one of those ‘It’s a Small World’ dolls”), the prose is simple but hilarious in its own right. Rowell also does an impressive job portraying the fashions, social expectations, and technological advances of the 1980s.
While it is easy to read this young adult novel in the course of an afternoon or two, Eleanor and Park actually touches upon some fairly deep themes. For instance, Park decides to go to school one day with eyeliner because it makes him feel fierce and more dramatic, and is immediately chastised by his strict father for not living up to family expectations of masculinity. However, Park’s decision to ignore teasing and be himself anyway reveals the power of individuality. Eleanor comes from a terrible home —severe poverty, four little siblings, and an abusive alcoholic stepfather—and the way she ponders her beautiful movie-star mom’s life choices raises awareness for the psychological damage inflicted upon children in homes like this.
The only possible issue with this novel is that it is a fairly predictable high school romance with typical ups and downs and a disappointingly foreseeable climax. There are probably a few dozen other novels with a similar storyline; however, Eleanor and Park’s quirky characters and unique chronological setting make it a true character study and a good novel for discussion.
Commended by the New York Times, NPR, Amazon, and the American Library Association, Eleanor and Park is set to become a major motion picture within the next few years. Because this sweet story is something that you really should not miss, consider picking up a copy before it becomes too popular!