Title: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Eleanor is the new girl in school, and the only good thing about school is that she’s not at home. Poor and stuck living with her mother’s abusive boyfriend she just wants to get by. Park just wants to keep his head down, being half Korean makes him different enough. Forced to share a bus seat Park and Eleanor slowly get to know each other, and then can’t live without the other. Too bad it’s not as easy as “happily ever after” when what could save Eleanor will hurt both of them.
I keep seeing people talking about this as a romance. It’s not so much. It’s a (quasi) contemporary problem novel centered around a love story. What Eleanor and Park are going through, both separately and together, is so much deeper than “will they or won’t they”.
Eleanor is dealing with isolation, abuse, and body image issues just to name a few. Park struggles with his racial identity and his relationship with his father. Rowell skillfully handles all of this without making it feel like an After-School Special. (How was that for an eighties reference?) The alternating third person viewpoint gives glimpses into both characters’ experience, but it also lessens the emotional impact of their struggles. That may actually be a wise choice as some of the the events are so heart-breakingly real they might just overload or feel manipulative to the reader.
Given the nuances of the main characters it is unfortunate that secondary characters are rather flat and stereotypical. Park’s Korean mom still speaks bad English after so many years in America. Steve, the Jock, and Tina, the mean girl, are straight out of Central Casting, and the less said about Eleanor’s friends DeNice and Beebi the better. Still, the reader will likely appreciate the comic relief provided in the form of Park’s best friend Cal who offers such gems as “Ophelia was bonkers, right? And Juliet was what, a sixth-grader?”
There is definitely a slow build here that is very much consistent with the characters as Park really doesn’t know what to make of Eleanor at first and she really doesn’t deal with other people in general. The friendship is well developed, but at first glance the romance seems rather forced. On reflection this seems more a consequence of these deeply unsure characters trying to navigate desires they are completely unprepared for rather than a flaw in the writing. Rowell doesn’t go for the easy out here, but leaves us feeling hopeful. Love doesn’t always guarantee a happily ever after, but it changes us and gives us something to hold onto in the dark.
As far as similar books the title that kept coming back to me was Sweethearts by Sara Zarr which is similar in a lot of ways. Other possibilities are Winter Town by Stephen Edmond, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, and Every Day by David Levithan.
*Digital ARC provided by publisher