Review by Theresa Wagner
Eleanor & Park is Rainbow Rowell’s first novel geared toward young adults, however, it appeals to those of who are of a “certain age” as well. Set over the course of a school year in 1986, Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus and start to bond over comic books, music and alienation. These two kids don’t have the easiest life. Eleanor is a “big girl” with bright red hair (kids on the bus call her Big Red, and she describes herself as resembling a barmaid) who has just returned to her home in Omaha, after being kicked out for a year and forced to stay with acquaintances. Every moment Eleanor is home is terrifying and claustrophobic — she shares a room with a mess of siblings and lives in constant fear of offending her abusive alcoholic stepfather, Richie.
Park is a half-Korean kid who is sort of popular but separated from the larger social order of his school both by his race and by his passion for comic books and good music. On the first day of school, Eleanor sits down next to him on the bus. Over time, she begins reading his comics over his shoulder. Then he lends them to her. They bond over music. Eventually, they begin holding hands on the rides to and from school.
Eleanor has to deal with her step-father, who doesn’t love her. She lives in poverty with her large family. She has to keep all of her possessions in a garbage bag and it doesn’t take a psychologist to know how her step father feels about her. She also contend with the kids her at school who tease her about her weight and the clothes she is forces to wear due to her family’s financial situation. Park introduces her to a different kind of life. She sees what a normal teenage life can be like and that gives her courage and hope. Being loved by Park makes her feel less alone. Park shares his music with her. He even lends her a Walkman because she doesn’t have one just so she can experience The Smiths and Joy Division. I like that this book is set in the 1980s because teens who read it will likely go to their parents to ask them about stuff like Walkmans and mixed tapes.
At its heart, this book is a story of hope and love. Rainbow Rowell has crafted a brutally honest story about real teenage life. Even though it’s set in the 1980s, the experiences still ring true for teens today. I think that this book shows how you can rise above given circumstances to a better life. It reminded me what it was like to be young and in love. Music is such a huge part of this book and the author has created a few playlists that a worth checking out as well.