Eleanor & Park has to be one of the loveliest books I’ve read in a long time. I bought it as a Christmas present for myself (What? People can do that) and took it away on holiday, consequently staying up half the night to finish it.
Eleanor & Park is primarily a love story between two teenagers, neither of whom feels like they fit in, either with their families or at school. Eleanor is the new girl at school and Park is begrudgingly kind when the other kids turn on her. This kindness turns into friendship between them and gradually into a tentative romance.
The story is set from 1986/’87 and alternately told from both Eleanor and Park’s points of view. Park’s dad is American, while his mum is Korean and he feels slightly separate from his peers due to his mixed ethnicity. Their casual racism only heightens his feeling of distance. He feels like a disappointment to his father, for not being as traditionally ‘macho’ as his dad.
Eleanor is a tall (the description of her makes me think Amazonian, truthfully), eccentrically dressed redhead who is living with her four younger brothers and sisters, mother and step-father. Eleanor has recently returned from living away for a year, kicked out by her step-father, who is a constant menacing presence. Both Park and Eleanor feel isolated and unable to be themselves. After Park allows Eleanor to sit next to him on the school bus, they begin to bond over a combination of comic books and music, Park delighting in sharing all of his favourite things with someone who appreciates them as much as he does and Eleanor giddy that someone would so willingly share with her.
The slow drip feed of friendship into love is realistic and incredibly sweet. The excitement each gets from just holding hands is evocatively described and Rowell beautifully captures the aching agony and joy of teenage romance. What’s really brilliant about this book is that this is more than boy meets girl, happily ever after hurrah. Both characters gain something from the other; become better and stronger. They each love the other for all the things they dislike in themselves.
Park finds strength from Eleanor to come out of his shell and be who he wants to be. Eleanor finds in Park some self-belief and reliance, reminding her that she is special and doesn’t deserve the cruel taunts she gets at school or the terrifying malevolence of Richie, her step-father. Rowell builds the aura of fear surrounding Eleanor’s home and Richie slowly; dropping hints here and there, each new bit of information more awful than the last. The more you know of her home life, the more you feel the warmth of Park’s family, who are kind and loving. The more you understand what Eleanor is hiding from, the more precious her time with Park.
Rowell has written not only a great love story, but a great story about what it is to be a teenager and to feel alone and how much brighter the world seems when you find someone who understands and makes you that little bit less lonely. The story is funny, moving and intelligent and lingers with the reader long after you’ve finished.