Eleanor and Park is a thoroughly absorbing story about two young misfits coming together and finding love. It is the first book I have read by Rainbow Rowell and I will definitely be seeking out the rest of her novels on the strength of this one.
The year is 1986. On the bus to school, new girl Eleanor winds up sitting next to Park, an action that will have a massive effect on both of their lives. Eleanor stands out like a sore thumb, with bright unruly red hair, larger than average body and thrift shop clothes. she is an automatic target for bullies and her prickly personality does her no favours. Park is her complete opposite. Quiet and studious, he does not attract the wrong kind of attention. Despite the fact that he is half-Asian, he is accepted by the predominantly white community where he resides.
The two do not immediately hit it off, it takes some time for them to warm to each or even strike up a conversation. Park notices Eleanor reading his comic books over his shoulder on the bus. He starts to bring her his comics to read and the two soon discover they have a lot in common, even though on the outside it would appear to not be the case. Eleanor comes from a poverty-stricken background, while Park's family, although not abundantly rich, live quite comfortably. The two bond through a shared love of reading and music. Their developing friendship turns romantic but Eleanor has secrets which she is keeping from Park, secrets that relate to her vicious step-father, and when these secrets eventually come to light their relationship may not survive.
This was not an easy book to read despite some fluffy romantic parts in the middle of the book. Eleanor's home-life is unsettling to read about and is realistically depicted, although certainly horrific. It really drives home how some people are forced to live, on the mercy of others with no autonomy for themselves. Park has an almost perfect home-life (despite his dad being a little disappointed in not having an overly 'manly' son) but it veered on being unrealistic at times, notably since his parents had an inter-racial marriage. I would have thought that would have brought with it a little tension so it did not come across wholly authentic to me, especially given the era that the book was set.
Nonetheless, Park and Eleanor was an involving read and I really liked the main characters. Eleanor was a really interesting character. She was not a sweet and quirky lead as I half-expected from the description, she was awkward and not at all socially adept but still managed to be a remarkably likeable protagonist and you cannot help but have empathy for her and her situation. Park was genuinely a sweetheart and although he struggled with self-image and did not always stand up for himself (and Eleanor), by the end of the book he is happier in his own skin and you get the impression he will no longer allow others to walk over him.
The end of the book is a little abrupt but there is a definitive feeling that it is not completely over, though everything is left rather open to interpretation. I actually really liked that not everything was tied up neatly but it may be somewhat frustrating for some readers as there is not a lot of closure offered. I really enjoyed Eleanor and Park and sailed through the book quickly though I would not class it as a 'light' read by any stretch of the imagination as it deals with some heavy issues.