By Isabel Joyce
Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park rejuvenates the timeless boy-meets-girl story with two endearing characters who fall in love unexpectedly.
The book begins with Eleanor, a reserved teenage girl with wild red hair and strange clothes, making her way down the bus aisle on her first day of school. Park, a quiet biracial teenage boy, reluctantly offers her an empty seat. Thus begins the slow-moving, hesitant relationship in which the two characters fall in love.
Eleanor and Park differ from the contemporary status quo, which is unusual for a romantic young adult novel. Commonly, romantic novels feature the perfect, beautiful couple. Not only do young adult novels feature the perfect couple façade, but popular movies and music have jumped along for the ride. These movies, books, and music go straight to the teenage population, sending them unrealistic messages: the “perfect” body does not correlate to Barbie’s bizarrely portioned features, and the anti-feminist messages Ariana Grande sings about in her crass lyrics should not be taken to heart. Seeing a couple who is more reflective of normal people is refreshing, and makes the book all the more relatable.
Unlike most young adult novels that emphasize the abrupt, dramatic romance, the relationship between Eleanor and Park builds gradually over the course of the book, creating a more authentic and relatable story.
The story is told from both Eleanor and Park’s points of view, which is not uncommon in young adult literature. Rowell plays with the length of the chapters to accelerate certain periods of their relationship and to show their deepening feelings for each other in a natural and realistic way; a couple chapters at a time utilize only a couple of short and sweet sentences, as the characters ping-pong back and forth excitedly, describing each other in almost poetic language.
Most teenagers have insecurities, which the novel addresses openly by not creating the stereotypical image of two perfect-looking teenagers for both of the star-crossed lovers. Eleanor is immediately picked on after walking onto the bus, due to her huge head of orange curly hair and her overweight build. Park stays in the shadows, escaping the cruel comments thrown at Eleanor, but not quite accepted into the hierarchy of his school. Their relationship is utterly unexpected from the norm of a high school couple, due to their lack of physical similarities, which only evolves into a more intriguing story.
Eleanor has a heinous stepfather, one who stands in the way of her relationship with Park. He calls her obscene names, abuses her mother, and provides the bare minimum for Eleanor and her four siblings. Eleanor experiencing domestic violence at home, makes her character even more realistic and easier for readers to empathize.
Park tries to help Eleanor by allowing her to stay at his house after school. His actions of pure kindness contribute to the simplistically sweet mood of the book. But unfortunately, his efforts are not enough; the novel takes a dramatic turn in the last few chapters, which involves shedding more than a couple tears. And similar to how the story began, the book ends on a bittersweet note.
Rowell’s novel stands apart from the typical romantic young adult book with its simplistically sweet aura, unforgettable characters, and charming humor. Despite it’s heart-breaking ending, the book still manages to pull of an extremely satisfactory and heartwarming read, one that is sure to keep a place in readers’ bookshelves for a long time.