Eleanor & Park has been such a familiar feature on my TBR list that now I’ve finally read it, my TBR feels like it’s missing something. This is the fifth novel I’ve read by Rainbow Rowell, and like the previous four, it didn’t disappoint. Rowell is an author I consider to be ‘good hands’, so I was saving Eleanor & Park for a time when I needed a book I knew would be a safe bet.
Eleanor & Park is a YA novel about finding a lifeline in an unexpected place. Eleanor has just moved back in with her family, after her alcoholic step-father kicked her out a year earlier. Their reconciliation has been far from smooth. Eleanor and her younger siblings tip-toe around their mother’s husband careful not to infuriate him. It’s easier said than done when he has a fuse so short it’s practically non-existent. The house Eleanor returns to is not their old home, but a smaller one that belonged to her step-father’s mother. It’s too small for a family with five children all sharing one room, but their step-father’s comfort is the priority, not theirs.
Not only does Eleanor have to navigate her way through the warzone that is her own home, but she also has to navigate the treacherous waters of a new school.
High school is never easy when teenagers are so quick to judge. On the school bus, Eleanor is quickly identified as a target for the popular kids taunts. Her bright red hair, her mismatched clothes and her size mark her out as different but despite the taunts, Eleanor refuses to react. Park judges her, just as the others do. He doesn’t want to associate with her, because he’d be painting a target on his back for the others to tease him too. But as he relinquishes the seat next to himself on the bus, and they spend more time together, he realises his first impressions were wrong, and this is something that reverberates throughout the book. Characters often make assumptions within the novel, only to have them challenged.
Ultimately this is a book about character. Like the characters from Rowell’s other works, Eleanor and Park are fully realised and shaped by their upbringings. Eleanor has lost faith in her mother, has never had faith in her father, and is scared of her step-father which has made her resilient, defensive and wary of others. Park’s upbringing couldn’t be more different. His parents are still together and in love. He has a close relationship with his grandparents, who are also his neighbours. As a result, he has a more idealised view of the world. But his family life is still far from plain-sailing. He feels inadequate to his father, an ex-army officer. His dad has conservative ideals about masculinity and struggles to identify with Park.
Yet despite their differences, Eleanor and Park start to rub off on each other. Park’s simpler view of the world makes Eleanor less cautious and more hopeful. In turn, Eleanor makes Park conscious that the world isn’t the same for everyone. Her struggles make him consider things beyond his own experiences and make him more empathetic to others. Being different might brand you as an outsider, but Rowell’s characters prove that it’s the differences between us that really count, because they make us who we are.