Eleanor and Park is already popular with some of our readers of realistic teen fiction, but before Valentine’s Day rolls around, I’d like to introduce it to the rest of you who are looking for a good romance.
It’s 1986 and the new school year has begun. When Eleanor tries to find a seat on the school bus, she is shut out. People seem to hate her for her appearance—she’s heavy, has long, wild, curly red hair, and dresses weird. People will go on to call her “Big Red” and mercilessly bully her in PE class. But on that first day, Park, who also thinks of himself as different-looking because he is half white and half Korean, finally lets Eleanor sit next to him, although he is very rude to her as he does, using the f-word.
And so begins a lovely romance. No, you wouldn’t think so, but both Eleanor and Park are smart kids and can see pass the exterior shells. Park realizes that Eleanor likes the comics he reads on the bus in the morning, so he sets copies on her seat each day. He knows that she would like the same punk music he does, if she could afford to buy it. So he makes tapes for her. And they talk about everything they have in common, growing close.
What it takes Park much longer to realize is that Eleanor’s home life is a nightmare.
Eleanor’s dad is out of the picture. He just doesn’t have any interest in his many children. Eleanor’s beautiful but egoless and beaten-down mom has married Richie—an abusive, perverted, foul-mouthed jerk who won’t allow a door on the bathroom (for starters). They are poor, and Eleanor’s strange taste in clothes is partly due to the fact that there is no money to buy anything except ill-fitting thrift-shop attire. She, her brothers and sister all walk on thin ice daily, hiding from Richie and waiting for him to explode. Which he does with some frequency.
The thing about this novel that is so sweet—and so tough—is that Park and Eleanor know that their love has come very early in life. It’s not likely to last ‘forever.’ But what they share is worth having, even if they seem destined for unavoidable heartache.
High school housekeeping: One of my coworkers made the astute observation that there are two camps of teen readers when it comes to Eleanor and Park. Although this is a bestseller and super-popular book, we have had several teens bring it back and tell us they couldn’t get into it, didn’t like it. These are mostly girls who are looking for romance books. In talking to them, we generally find that they like formula romance—they liked Simone Elkeles’ and Susane Colasanti’s books. They want the forever part and sometimes more—teens who stay together forever while becoming brilliant artists or scientists. Oh, and rich, of course. If you are a romance reader, I want to encourage you to try Eleanor and Park (and The Fault in Our Stars, of course). Seeing examples of teens who treat one another well in difficult circumstances is a way becoming that kind of person—of finding an example of love that respects the individual with all his or her quirks. It’s also a way of facing reality and learning that, painful though it is, to have loved and have lost is often worth it. In fact, it may well enrich your life.