With all the current pop culture trends of vampire books and movies where love is destined and always works out in the end, it is easy to forget sometimes that first love doesn’t always last. Sometimes, the odds are stacked against you.
Eleanor and Park, the protagonists of a new young adult novel by Rainbow Rowell, know this all too well. Both are adept at navigating the hierarchy of their homes and schools: Park doesn’t speak up when the mean kids bully people at the back of the bus and Eleanor takes her baths right after school, while her stepfather is still at work. Both are misfits in their neighborhood in Omaha, Nebraska of the 1980’s. Park is half-Asian, obsessed with comics and music, but never quite macho enough to please his father. Eleanor–big, with wild red hair and crazy clothes– is back with her family after a year of living with strangers after being kicked out by her stepfather. They end up sitting next to each other on the bus and eventually begin to share music, comic books and finally, personal history. As they fall in love, they will make mistakes, fight for time and space to see each other and finally–because sometimes the world and life just get in the way– have to try and let each other go.
The main characters are the great strength of this book. As a whole, the book is a little wordy and at times I questioned whether all the switching points of view between Eleanor and Park was really necessary. The 1980’s setting worked well, but wasn’t quite as vivid and clear as in other recent books (I’m thinking of The Miseducation of Cameron Post in particular). Despite being written in third person, it felt like a first person book, as each section focused in so specifically on the actions, thoughts and feelings of the two main characters. Because we are getting the story from their point of view, other characters feel flat and at times superfluous. There is absolutely no sympathy for Eleanor’s stepfather and even her mother is hard to understand. Park’s parents go through more of an arc as they gradually learn about and come to accept Eleanor, but we barely see his younger brother, to the point where it feels like the only reason he is there is to make Park feel inadequate.
Eleanor and Park are characters with an endearing combination of snark and romanticism. Eleanor, who rolls her eyes at Shakespeare, saying “Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want” also thinks when looking at Park “There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat that makes me want to let him open doors for me.” Park, for his part, jokes about Star Wars while also telling Eleanor how much he loves her freckles. Readers will go back to this book again and again, hoping that the ending is just a little happier the next time around.