I’m not giving this book a rating because how much I liked it isn’t the same as how good I think the book is. So let me start with this: Eleanor & Park is an excellent YA romance. Eleanor has just moved back in with her mom, stepfather, and 4 siblings. On her first day in her new school, she doesn’t know where to sit on the bus and Park reluctantly makes room for her. For days they ride silently on the bus, but then they start to connect when Park realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder. He lends her some and also creates mix tapes so she can experience the music he likes. A friendship and then romantic relationship develops.
Rainbow Rowell created memorable characters and especially memorable dialogue. I love how accepting Park is of Eleanor’s prickliness; in fact, it seems to be part of what he likes about her. Eleanor dresses unusually because her family is living in poverty, so she basically wears what she can find. She is also fat. Both of those things make her stand out, which generally doesn’t work out well for high schoolers. I appreciated that Park never tries to change these things and doesn’t love her in spite of them. All too often, larger bodies are portrayed as lovable or attractive only in spite of their size, something to be dismissed or valued only because the romantic partners can see “beneath the surface.” Or there is acceptance but only if there can also be some making fun of the person’s (usually woman’s) size. But it’s very clear that Park is attracted to her without ever really thinking about her weight, and her weight isn’t used as a humor device. There is some bullying around it, but not beyond what one might expect in high school.
There were some wonderful moments in how the relationship was revealed and described. Eleanor doesn’t have money and can’t afford batteries for her Walkman (the book is set in 1986), and I actually teared up a little at this part: “[Park] emptied all his handheld video games and [his brother’s] remote control cars and called his grandma to tell her that all he wanted for his birthday in November was AA batteries” (p. 53). That is just so sweet. They also moved very slowly with physical intimacy, starting with holding hands. As each new body part starts being touched, both characters are really affected by it: “And then he’d started laughing and pulled at one of her curls. (That was a new, awesome development–the hair touching. Sometimes he’d come up behind her after school, and tug at her ponytail or tap the top of her bun.)” (p. 65). When Park progresses to touching her neck or her back (he’s usually the one initiating touch), it’s very meaningful to both of them.
However, the novel was not what I was expecting. After having read Attachments and Fangirl, I went in with the expectation that this would be a fairly light-hearted read, but there is some heavy content that I wasn’t expecting. It wasn’t extremely dark – I’m not sure Rowell ever goes really dark – but there is definitely domestic abuse and neglect in Eleanor’s home. It was emotionally difficult to read some of it, which I hadn’t planned for. The ending though, it quite hopeful.