Having loved Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl, I decided it was time to pick up her highly-acclaimed earlier novel, Eleanor & Park, a high-school love story set in the 1980s. Eleanor and Park are an unlikely couple: she is the victim of relentless high school bullying because she’s overweight, has flaming red hair and dresses eccentrically — but mainly just because she’s an outsider and the feral teenagers on the bus need someone to attack. Park, half-Korean, handsome, but shy and quiet, isn’t a target of their bullying — he’s grown up with these kids and has an uneasy truce with them — but he isn’t popular either. Their friendship begins slowly through silent school-bus rides where Eleanore reads comic books over Park’s shoulder, but soon blossoms into romance.
But there are pitfalls along the way, as there always are. At home, Park sometimes feels smothered by his overprotective parents, particularly his father who is often critical of him, but he gradually comes to realize that his home life, for all its annoyances, is built on a solid foundation of love, while Eleanor’s family life, which she tries to keep hidden from him, is a nightmare. The chapters told from Eleanor’s point of view in which she depicts life in an abusive household are bleak, terrifying and powerful, and help the reader understand why Eleanor can’t throw herself into teenage romance with happy abandon — and why her caution may doom her relationship with the one person who really loves her.
This is a teen romance with depth, heart and insight. I highly recommend it.