“That stupid Asian kid totally knew she was reading his comics. He even looked up at Eleanor sometimes before he turned the page, like he was that polite.”
After being kicked out of the house by her abusive step-father, Richie, Eleanor spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Now Richie has agreed to let her come home, which turns out to be a mixed blessing. While she’s happy to be back with her mother and siblings, the situation has gone from bad to worse; Eleanor is now sharing a single room with her four siblings, in a house with no phone, no door on the bathroom, and no privacy to speak of. Eleanor tries to keep her head down, both at home and at school, but being a big girl with red hair and funny clothes, she sticks out like a sore thumb. She seems like the inevitable target for the school bullies on the bus, until a quiet Asian boy stands up for her–sort of. Unlike Eleanor, Park has had a comfortably middle class existence, though he sometimes clashes with his father, a hyper-masculine Korean War veteran. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure.
Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, truthful details. Although Eleanor’s home life does eventually precipitate a crisis, a good half of the novel takes place as Eleanor and Park get to know one another on the bus to school, sharing comics and music, and, eventually—finally!—conversation. Rowell leverages this limited setting to its maximum potential, throwing together two people who are a perfect fit, and yet never would have come together otherwise.
Set in 1986, and heavily referencing the comics and music of the period, it would be easy to accuse Eleanor & Park of being a nostalgia book. However, it reads much more like a familiar stomping ground, a period which allows the author to easily and authentically provide those exquisite details that make this novel so compelling. In fact, the novel is set in the period when Rowell was in high school, in an Omaha neighbourhood where she once lived. While it helps to appreciate 80s comics and music, this novel by no means feels outdated, or like it couldn’t happen today.
The recipient of four starred reviews from major publications (Booklist, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus) Eleanor & Park has been receiving raves from all quarters. I can finally weigh in and say that these accolades are extremely well deserved. Eleanor & Park is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.