Published on ReadKiddoRead.com, May 2013.
In this convincing chronicle of first love set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986, Rainbow Rowell introduces the reader to two high school students, Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is an outsider. She’s the new girl in town: redhead, tall, complex, and abundantly sarcastic; Park is the unwitting, low-key, average guy at school.
When the two first meet on the bus, they hardly speak; though slowly but surely they begin to fall for one another. From stealing first glances, to cryptic conversations about anything other than what they’re really feeling, to sharing the intimate details of their lives, Eleanor and Park find their way to navigating life together. Readers will follow Eleanor and Park through all of the agonizing rites of passage in a typical American high school: gym class, school cafeterias, bullying, riding the bus to school, and finding a niche and group of friends, but they will really get to know the characters through their lives at home.
This is where Eleanor’s narrative really steals the spotlight. Her step-dad is physically and verbally abusive, while her mother – a shadow of who she could be – just tries to keep the peace. Rowell grounds Eleanor’s home life in the everyday details of a young woman struggling to get by… and just barely managing to do so. You can’t help but admire Eleanor whose simultaneous vulnerability and strength is harrowing, striking, and sad.
By comparison, Park has things easy. He has an overbearing father, an embarrassingly-stereotypical (to his mind) Korean mother, and importantly, a stable home life – a stark contrast to Eleanor’s experience. As Eleanor and Park grow closer and the disparate elements of their lives become intertwined, their differences put their newfound relationship to the test.
Ultimately, this is a story of two people finding each other, then finding themselves. It’s a story of growing together and growing apart, all at the same time. Readers will be asking: how could it possibly work out between them? Then again, how could it not?
ELEANOR & PARK will leave readers desperately rooting for both characters, with all the immediacy and intensity of first love found in many young adult novels. Though the premise may sound like a familiar boy-meets-girl/girl-meets-boy story, this novel is anything but common. Rowell’s spot-on writing and tone provide a nuanced look at how one person can enter your life and undoubtedly change it forever.
ELEANOR & PARK received the 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor and a 2014 Boston-Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction.