It's 1986 and Eleanor has just moved. She's the new girl, and she's got to sit somewhere on the bus. Park prays it's not next to him. She's weird looking. She has long red hair. He's gotta stay under the radar so that Steve leaves him along. Steve who always loves to torment the person who gives him too much attention . . .
Eleanor sits on the same bus seat with Park. They don't talk. Day after day, they resent their situation. Until one day, they don't. Until one day, Park notes that Eleanor is looking at the comics he's reading. Until he realizes she's someone he wants to talk to. Until one day they talk.
Until one day they realize they are mad for one another. Except it's not one day. It's the accumulation of days and hours and moments together (and more, the moments apart) when they realize just how much they need one another.
Rowell's YA debut novel, Eleanor and Park, is excellent. Park and Eleanor are two fully-realized characters who are both dealing with tremendously tough things in their lives. Park lives with a demanding -- and at times, demeaning -- father who finds him a disappointment to his family and his culture (he's Asian), but ultimately, Park just wants to get through life. He's a nice guy and he doesn't want that reputation marred. Eleanor, on the other hand, has it rough and that's the only way to say it. Eleanor's step father is abusive but in subtle and horrific ways. He makes an effort to make existing as uncomfortable and painful for her as possible through little things that aren't really little. Their bathroom in their tiny home has no door. Her clothes are never clean. She has no where to put anything except her bed. Eleanor has absolutely no safety or security in her own home. She's not a romantic, not an optimist, not hopeful for anything because she's never had a reason to be. Even when she bumps into Park and even as their relationship progresses, she still maintains her distance because she has to. Because that's how she's learned to deal with life.
These characters are real and they are aching. You want them to succeed, and you want them to have the ultimate outcome. I'm not a fan of romances, but the truth is, neither is Eleanor. She's tough as hell and she has no reason to believe anyone could ever give her the sorts of things she needs and deserves emotionally (and physically). Rowell has a knack for getting to these characters and their insecurities and allowing those things to be what brings them together. Their relationship is strained and cautious, and in that caution, there is tenderness.
I related to Eleanor on many, many levels. Aside from sharing a lot of her feelings when it comes to love and romance, I related to the relationship she had with her stepfather. It made me so uncomfortable because much of it was my experience with a step parent, as well. I just wanted to give the girl a hug and then tell her that she was worth a hell of a lot more than what she was being given. Park was sweet without ever being unrealistic. He doesn't save Eleanor, and this isn't a story about where a girl gives into that sort of trope. And in fact, I believe the ending of the book said it all -- the next lines are spoiler, so feel free to skip down if you don't want it. This was a story of Eleanor being the hero of her own journey. She was just lucky to have had the time with Park that she did and what they had -- it could never, ever be taken away from her or from him.
This book will be enjoyed by readers looking for an emotionally mature story -- there's virtually nothing sexual here at all. It's much more about emotional intimacy with moments of raw physical ache (vs. sex as sex). It reminded me at times of Natalie Standiford's How to Say Goodbye in Robot and it will have appeal to teen readers who liked Laura Buzo's Love and Other Perishable Objects. Readers who appreciated the hard-fought romances in the style of Gayle Forman will likely enjoy this book, too.
Yes, this story is set in the 80s, which is usually a huge turn off for me. Fortunately, the heart of the story is timeless. The only thing giving it that time flavor are the pop culture references which, yes, could have been brought to current references to have had the same impact. But it wasn't a deal breaker.
Eleanor & Park is available now. Review copy received from the publisher.