This YA novel has been on my to-read list for a while and I loved it just as much as I thought I would. Rainbow Rowell’s novel, set in the 80’s, tells the unlikely love story of Eleanor and Park, two high school students who don’t quite fit in their Nebraska high school but for very different reasons. Park is the only Asian in his school—the son of a white father and a Korean mom, and has dealt with being “different” all his life. Though he isn’t one of the popular kids, he has managed to avoid sinking to the bottom of the social ladder through a combination of luck and not making waves. He loves punk music and comics and dreams of escape.
When a new girl gets on the bus one day, Park hopes she won’t notice the empty seat next to him because she’s a mess—red curly hair, dressed in an odd and attention-getting combo of clothing choices, and largely awkward. Of course, she does and Park doesn’t say a word to her, worried that her strangeness will drag him down in the social pecking order.
Eleanor sits next to the quiet Asian kid, dressed in black, and wishes she could be anywhere than here. She has recently moved to town with her mom, stepdad, and a slew of siblings. The situation at home is bad—all the kids are crammed into one room, there isn’t money enough for the basic necessities, and Eleanor has to tread lightly with her stepfather since she doesn’t want to be sent away again.
The story of how these two very “real” characters become friends and then more than friends is both awkwardly realistic and emotionally satisfying. There is a lot of darkness here but also hope and lots of wonderful 80’s references—XTC, Elvis Costello, Sony Walkmans, etc. As a reader, I ended up rooting for, crying about, and hoping for these characters in deeper ways than I typically do and I credit Rainbow Rowell’s writing for that. This is a story that will stay with you long after you finish it and one that made me head to the library to find more of Rowell’s work.