In 1986, Park meets Eleanor on the school bus. They are both misfits in their own way, and the two form an unlikely friendship that develops into a first love so profound that neither can totally comprehend it. But with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the two might not be able to stay together, especially when one of them faces an unsafe situation.
One could make the argument that this book has many common elements in YA. To a certain extent, this is a true statement. But there’s something about how Rainbow Rowell combines all these elements in this excellent debut novel that makes it special. The precision and richness of Rowell’s prose combined with vivid characters allows this novel to transcend any tropes and become a singular reading experience. This is one of the best books of the year.
Told in alternating voices, Rowell manages to set both voices apart. Readers experience what the duo does: the funny, thrilling stirrings of first love and the intense feelings that come with it as well as the harder stuff of life. Eleanor’s home life is awful, and the increasing threat of her drunk, abusive stepfather gives the novel an urgency. The contrast between Eleanor’s poverty-stricken home and Park’s lower-middle class one is sharply defined and incredibly fascinating. Authenticity rings from every page.
Well drawn characters don’t end with the book’s leads. Parks parents are two of the most well-drawn and interesting adult characters you’ll ever encounter in a YA novel. There’s so much nuance here, and so much detail, that it’s impossible not to get sucked into the world in which Park and Eleanor inhabit. This is simply great reading.
Sexy, funny, and hopeful, this is a novel for YA and adult readers alike. Immediately after finishing, this reviewer went out and bought a hardcover copy. Expect it to make the best-of lists come next winter. It’s certainly worthy. Highly, highly recommended.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Press: 2013. Library copy.