Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

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Eleanor & Park is Rainbow Rowell's debut novel.

by Claire Kyllonen, Assistant Editor

Meet Eleanor: a shy paradox of a girl with a zany fashion sense on top of her wild curly hair. She’s self-conscious about her looks, but she also refuses to allow herself to be defined by society’s rules. She describes herself with a barmaid-like figure. Kids on the bus like to call her Big Red.

Meet Park: a quiet, half-Korean martial artist who is obsessed with all things punk rock. He’s just trying to get through high school unscathed, literally and figuratively. He’s only barely popular, barred from other students because of his race.

Meet Eleanor & Park: two star-crossed, sixteen-year-old “misfits” who discovered the brilliance of each other by accident while listening to mix tapes on the school bus. From their first glances to anxious hand-holding, their story reminds us how “first love almost never lasts, but [is] brave and desperate enough to try.”

Never in my life have I read a YA novel as emotionally gut-wrenching and raw as Eleanor & Park. Even though the story takes place in 1986, connecting with the characters is effortless. Neither Eleanor nor Park is exceptional in any particular way (i.e. neither one has cancer or is a child movie star). They’re just teenagers, struggling to find their niche in the world while reading good comic books and listening to even better music (from the likes of The Smiths and The Beatles). This novel touches base with several universal and popular themes like: sibling rivalry, abusive stepparents, living in poverty, alcoholism, pressure to please parents, bullying, etc. While Eleanor and Park do struggle with these issues as their real and tender romance begins to blossom, the main obstacle against them is just the world, a world that refuses to accept the fact that a girl who is “big,” poor and dresses funny could fall in love with a boy who is from a “normal” family and is good-looking. And that he could possibly love her back.

Rainbow Rowell uses spectacular dialogue and wit to frame her characters, but she never falls short of displaying the unique humanity within each of them, whether they’re a main or minor character. Her description could seem so real and familiar at times that I found myself gasping alongside Eleanor as she and Park held hands for the first time. It felt like I was alongside their journey the whole way through, rooting for their teenage awkwardness until the last page. Readers who love a throwback to the 80s, teen romance, or simply a well-told story, can find it here in Eleanor & Park.