I typically roll my eyes at romance novels--they are so fake! But Eleanor & Park is different. Perhaps because Eleanor and Park are different. Eleanor Douglas and Park Sheridan--the lead characters in this romance--are different from most romance novel characters, but also just different. Different from their boorish peers. Different from their lame teachers. Different from their parents. And it's their feelings of being different that brings them together in a glorious display of misfit love.
Eleanor and Park meet on the bus. It's 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska. Eleanor is the new kid at school. With her unruly, red curly hair and thrift-store men's clothes, she's a walking scapegoat for the bullies at the back of the bus as she bleats down the aisle, looking for a seat. No one wants to be seen sitting next to such a weirdo. Even Park, at first. Park's lived in the same neighborhood as the bullies at the back of the bus since they were little kids, so even though he's different, other than irritating him, they mostly just leave him alone. Park is biracial--half-Korean American and half white--living in an all-white community. He's short--shorter than even his younger brother who's big and athletic like their manly man military dad. He's a music geek--a fan of industrial music such as Skinny Puppy and indie pop artists such as The Smiths, surrounded by fans of Foreigner and other barfy top-40 power-ballad bands of the era.
But Park has a more stable home life than Eleanor does. Park's family is well-off enough that he can drown out the sounds of the bullies at the back of the bus with his Walkman full of mixtapes. His parents don't understand him, but they're great role models for two people in a loving relationship. Because of this, Park's able to support Eleanor through her escape to a better life.
This tender love story has left my cynical self feeling woozy. As a Gen-Xer who grew up in a dysfunctional family during the 80s, loving The Smiths, boyish girls, girlish boys, and feeling like a total outcast, I can relate to Eleanor. And Park is dreamy. Cute and cool and shy and awkward and strong and loyal. I would've loved to have had Park for my first love. What a rare love story, shelved in the teen section of the library. The way Rowell describes Eleanor and Park holding hands takes my breath away more satisfyingly than any book shelved in the adult section. Their tender love scenes are not, as Eleanor says, "dirty" or "shameful" but a celebration of life. Two hearts beating as one. Full of the sun. Highly recommended.