As if I didn’t get enough star-crossed teenage romance from seeing The Fault In Our Stars, the next day I started reading Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. (I have a hard time believing that is someone’s real first name.) I like my sappy teenage love stories with happy endings and my more serious adult fiction with realistic endings, and this book gave me a little bit of both.
Eleanor has just moved back to “the Flats” in Omaha, Nebraska after living with her mother’s friends for a year. The reason she lived with these people for a year is Richie, Eleanor’s monstrosity of a stepfather, kicking her out of the house for rather ridiculous reasons. Said stepfather is verbally and physically abusive to Eleanor’s mother and young siblings — he forces them to live in a three-room shack in a bad neighborhood and is a violent alcoholic. Needless to say, Eleanor is not in a good place right now. Literally. Park is half-Korean, the only Asian in all of Omaha in the year 1986. Although he has friends in the semi-popular crowd, Park tends to keep to himself and dress/act on the punker side of things. The two teenagers are changed forever the day Eleanor gets on Park’s bus to school.
Eleanor and Park’s relationship is seemingly nonexistent, at first — he allows her to sit next to him on the bus as long as they don’t communicate whatsoever or acknowledge each other between the bus to and from school. Gradually, though, he starts noticing her interesting ensembles and beautiful skin and fiery hair while she starts reading his comic books over his shoulder and wondering how he got to be so good-looking. (It is absolutely adorable to read about these two falling in love with each other before they even know what’s about to hit them.) Once Park starts to share his music with Eleanor via mixed tapes (actual tapes played on an actual Walkman — remember those days?) they begin to acknowledge their relationship verbally, and soon enough they are holding hands and sharing innocent and then not-so-innocent kisses. (I have a great amount of respect for the way Rainbow Rowell presented the romance — perhaps that is why she set it in 1986 as opposed to today.)
Things get dicey when Park starts asking questions and Eleanor has to reveal, piece by piece, the sad state of her life: she has to bathe in a dirty tub separated from the kitchen by a flimsy curtain immediately after school so that she is nowhere to be found when her stepfather comes home from work, her wardrobe consists of ill-fitted and damaged items from the Salvation Army store, she has very little to call her own and lives in constant avoidance of everyone in her family. Park’s parents accept Eleanor into their lives and their home, but eventually Eleanor’s situation becomes too dangerous and she must ask her uncle in Minnesota to help. This is where things get really sad, and I’ll have to stop giving everything away.
I enjoyed this book because of the star-crossed teenage romance factor, but the realistic ending was almost too much for my fragile psyche to handle.