By Rainbow Rowell
Young adult books often get a bad rap, especially young adult romance. Infamous series like Twilight come to represent the whole body of young adult literature, obscuring true gems of the genre that could stand up to any critical test of quality. Case in point: Eleanor and Park.
Big, redheaded, and garbed in unapologetically outlandish outfits, Eleanor is a walking target for high school ridicule. Park, a good-looking, comic-book-and-music-loving Korean kid, is an expert at flying under the radar. His possession of the last single seat on the bus lands him Eleanor as a seatmate when she starts school late after returning from exile by her abusive alcoholic of a stepfather. It sounds like the set-up for a Hollywood-grade meet-cute, but this is the first of many expectations of the convention that Rowell will flout throughout the novel. Eleanor and Park’s relationship begins quirkily with her reading comic books over Park’s shoulder on rides to and from school, which soon births a system of Eleanor borrowing comics each night to finish and return the next morning. The comics give Eleanor an escape from her tense and oppressive home environment – sharing her bedroom with several younger siblings, living in fear of a volatile stepfather, deprived by poverty of basic comforts and necessities – long before they ever even begin to talk, and the growing connection with Park soon becomes a lifeline.
With Eleanor and Park, Rowell enters that infamously far-fetched realm of teenage romance and reifies it. Their relationship is sweet, awkward, and authentic; it’s romantic but not romanticized, realistic but not belittling. Eleanor and Park’s feelings are real, but the world is not kind to them; forces from school bullies to bullying stepfathers conspire to interfere at nearly every turn. It’s their strength of character and commitment to their feelings that keeps them together, and that – more than any sappy, happy ending (don’t expect one here) – is what gives this book so much heart. Rowell’s almost lyrical descriptions, as perceptive as they are creative, are frosting on the cake – both sensual enough to cause butterflies and earnest enough to strike a chord of truth.
Literature is an exercise in empathy, but it is also an exercise in self-discovery. Never, arguably, is this function more important than in YA, whose readers by definition have such limited ranges of their own experience to draw on yet are in such a rich period of exploration and growth. Literature, for them, offers an opportunity to enter a realm in which they can explore, witness, and learn from experience without threat of consequence. Eleanor and Park successfully provides such opportunity. The story enthralls while portraying an authenticity of experience from which readers can glean meaningful new understanding about what it is like to be young and in love, to be both underdog and outsider, and to stay steady in an unstable home environment. There are no false notes in Rowell’s treatment of Eleanor’s harsh home life (which could easily slip into the melodramatic), the sense of “us versus the world” Eleanor and Park feel at school and at home, or the star-crossed-lovers-esque drama of their fight to be together. At turns heartwarming and heart wrenching, Eleanor and Park will make young adults yearn and adults nostalgic for the inimitable tumult of first love.