Friday, September 20, 2013

Eleanor & Park

I think the last book I loved is a good place to start for a new book review, and that book is Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. Set in 1986, over the span of a school year, this young-adult novel focuses on two misfit teenagers that form an unlikely friendship that leads to love, which ultimately serves to help them navigate the rocky seas of high school and life. Park is half-Korean, into punk music and Watchmen comics, and trying to fly under the radar of teachers and ex-friends alike, and Eleanor, nicknamed Big Red by the heartless bullies on the school bus, is a big girl with red hair and thrift store men’s clothes, trying to fly under the radar of her abusive stepfather, Richie. Having spent a year away from her home and family after being chased away by Richie, she’s finally home with her mom and siblings and arduously working to stay out of Richie’s sights. New to the neighborhood, Eleanor meets Park on the first bus ride to school when he grudgingly comes to her rescue and lets her sit next to him. Although initially wary, the two slowly bond over comics, music and their outsider status. As their relationship and feelings grow, Park’s mom, a Korean immigrant who met his dad when he was in the service, slowly softens her attitude toward her son’s “weird” girlfriend and comes to empathize with Eleanor’s family struggles and in doing so, Park’s home becomes Eleanor's safe haven from her troubled home life. But when Eleanor’s situation at home becomes dangerous, Park must decide whether he's willing to help Eleanor, even if it means losing her.

I so enjoyed this novel. It’s funny, sweet and has so much heart, yet it gently and very effectively takes on some serious topics such as bullying and abuse. The chapters alternate between Eleanor and Park’s POV, so you always feel like you have your hand on the pulse of what each is feeling and where they are coming from. I love an underdog story, and both Eleanor and Park are underdogs in their own right, struggling with different issues – some more serious than others – but Rowell gives every fear, hardship and concern merit. While Eleanor is dealing with abuse and poverty, Park’s own struggles with his dad and freedom of expression are in no way diminished or swept away as insignificant.

I loved Eleanor’s hope and bravery. I could so empathize with her insecurities about her image and having to cope with school bullies, thinking back on my own high school years, though she was much braver than I ever was at that age. Each character is so well written that they become very real, as you live each moment of the story with them.

I’m a total sap when it comes to a good love story, whether the characters are 30 or 16, so for me Eleanor & Park is the perfect combo of captivating story, great characters, and raw emotion.