I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. It’s been getting flawless reviews, but to be honest I’ve just about had my fill of contemporary YA romances starring quirky, intelligent misfits. But what sold me on this book was the unique take on teenage obsession and the truly painful depiction of Eleanor’s home situation.
Park doesn’t know how or when it happened exactly, but somehow he has fallen in love with the new girl, Eleanor. ‘Big Red,’ as she is referred to by most of the school, doesn’t seem to care about what she looks like or making friends with anyone. Eleanor is equally shocked at her intense affection for the beautiful half-Asian, comic-book reading boy on the bus. But despite their differences, their relationship escalates to surprising levels.
Eleanor is a non-traditional love interest. She wears old men’s clothes, is constantly described as big or fat, and in many cases is the more assertive half of the relationship. Park finds innumerable ways to describe Eleanor’s colouring, particularly her red hair, which I loved. Park is also an unlikely male romantic lead. Eleanor describes him as beautiful, almost feminine. I like how the author Rainbow Rowell subverts traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity.
The contrast between Eleanor and Park’s families was fascinating and will be eye-opening for teen readers. I loved the scenes with Park’s family. His parents are dopey in love, even after a number of years. His father, an army man, has some difficulty with Park’s experimentation with punk makeup, but he loves his son and is very supportive of Eleanor. His mother, a Korean immigrant who runs a beauty salon out of their garage, is slow to warm to Eleanor but when she does she embraces her warmly.
Eleanor’s family situation is full of silences, rushed private moments, and fear. She shares a cramped room with three younger siblings who seem to be warming to their monster of a step-dad out of preservation. I truly despised Eleanor’s mother, who has trapped her family in a dangerous family situation with volatile, drunken, violent Richie. In addition to her home situation, Eleanor suffers at the ends of a number of school bullies. I won’t go into the details here, only mention that it is girl on girl crime and makes the reader’s stomach turn.
The book escalates to a point where Eleanor must make a hard choice, and the last few chapters are addictive and adrenalin soaked and I found myself rushing through them, wishing for the best and the impossible. The last few words are open to interpretation, and the internet is a-buzz with speculation about just WHAT is on that postcard.
This is a rich, surprising, and satisfying novel of love, escape, and hope. Eleanor & Park is available now in hard cover.