Whenever I begin explaining the plot behind the young adult novel Eleanor & Park to a friend, I find myself describing such a vague storyline that the book itself seems unworthy of the endless praise it has received since its publication. And yet it has received said praise, including Amazon’s Teen Book of the Year and the Goodreads Choice Award.
But what is Eleanor & Park about? It’s about Eleanor and Park. About the love they hold for each other and how the universe would do anything to stop them from being together. It’s about two teenagers who fall in love, and how they prove that first loves are often misleading and hopeless. It’s simple and common, but the relationship that blossoms throughout the story is far from that.
From the start of Rainbow Rowell’s book, it looks as though the two can’t ever be each other’s best match. Though they both struggle to understand their friends, family, and future, the one thing they have in common is their ability to realize the flaws in their bond.
Enter Eleanor. Although she was the character I found myself pitying the most, it wasn’t easy to understand her struggle. It’s her first year back since her emotionally abusive stepfather kicked her out of her home. She fights a continuous battle with her weight and attempts to dodge insults over her thrift store clothing. She is a victim of endless bullying from vicious girls. All in all, Eleanor believes there’s nothing about her to love, when in Park’s eyes, there’s nothing he couldn’t adore.
Park wasn’t as much a dominating character as Eleanor seemed to be, and maybe this was because Rowell wrote him to appear “normal” in comparison to Eleanor. However, there is so much more about him that readers must dig deeper into in order to fully comprehend his persona. Park is half-Korean and his family is a dream to Eleanor—with parents who look out for him, there seems to be nothing holding him back. He’s quiet because the thoughts that cloud his head probably can’t be said aloud. He has friends, but still feels different around them. He doesn’t understand his friends, and, quite frankly, they don’t understand him.
The one aspect of the story that isn’t as cliché as the blurb makes it sound is that it wasn’t love at first sight. It takes weeks for Eleanor and Park to begin sitting next to each other on the bus, exchanging music and comic books, and finally unleashing their raw, emotional feelings about everything they feel for one another and about the world.
Nothing is sugar-coated about Rowell’s characters, and everything is laid out how it should be. Throughout your journey of completing this story, you might laugh, you might cry, and you might be angry. I’ve done all three. You’ll find yourself torn between the softness of Park’s empathy for Eleanor, and the challenges they fight with not only themselves, but with anyone who disapproves of them. There isn’t a happy ending to their story, but the chance of them surviving as one is extremely high.