My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Confession: this was my first Rainbow Rowell novel. It won’t be my last.
Eleanor Douglas is an overweight (yes, an overweight main character!) teenager who starts at a new school after having being sent away by her new stepdad for a year. She reluctantly takes the bus to school, where she reluctantly sits next to Park Sheridan, a half-Korean boy from a pretty well-off background. Over the course of the school year, they go from sitting in silence to sharing comics and then find themselves dating. Simple, huh?
What really makes this story stand out is the background. Eleanor is overweight, dresses strangely, refuses to wear make-up, and subsequently finds herself with no friends and getting bullied. She lives in a poor home – a house where she shares a bedroom with her four siblings, and doesn’t even own a toothbrush. She bathes before her abusive stepdad comes home because their bathroom has no door. She lies when she goes over to Park’s house because her stepdad would refuse to let her go.
This isn’t a story set in a dream romantic world. There’s no love-at-first-sight locked-eyes-across-a-crowded-room twilight-esque scene where the main characters realise that they’re meant to be, forever and ever. Park doesn’t even like Eleanor when they meet, and it’s only through getting to know her that he starts to find her attractive. Eleanor acknowledges that they’re unlikely to get married and live happily ever after. There’s poverty and boundaries and bullying and embarrassment and even a break-up.
I think everyone can relate to Eleanor in one way or another. She’s the weird girl that every school has at least one of, the girl who’s a bit chubby and strange, who doesn’t dress correctly, who hates PE class, and who gets picked on. I was definitely one of those girls (I also didn’t have a cute half-Korean boyfriend though). This book is a little ray of hope for those girls, hope that they might meet someone who loves them for who they are (yeah, still waiting on that…).
So what else is great about this book? The characters are well developed, with hobbies and likes and friends and PARENTS (who haven’t dropped off the face of the earth conveniently so our lovebirds can live happily ever after at the tender age of 15) and FLAWS. Eleanor is no Mary Sue. She’s a girl with a bad home life and low self-esteem who doesn’t quite understand why this guy likes her so much (and doesn’t share absolutely everything with him). Park’s mum is judgemental at first, and doesn’t like Eleanor – but, like Park, she comes around to see she’s actually a nice person. There’s also diversity with an Asian love interest (not all love interests have to be mysterious, pale and handsome!) and Park’s background involving the Korean War really gives life not only to him, but also his parents.
Other reviews have highlighted a few problems with the book. There is a lack of racism in 1986 Omaha towards both Park (as a Korean) and Eleanor’s black friends which could have been a really interesting side story and the romance which develops between Park and Eleanor is perhaps a little unexpected (unless of course you’ve read the title of the book!) seeing as how antisocial he is towards her when they first meet. If I had to change something in the book, I’d add more. The book is pretty damn near perfect, but a few more side stories and secondary character development wouldn’t hurt.
A note on the ending: it left me wanting more. Don’t doubt that it wasn’t a good ending, but it left me wanting to know more about what happens to these characters as it’s a tad abrupt. However, I’m content with knowing that this a great stand-alone novel – too many YA books today are spun into a 10+ book series which eventually run out of steam.
Eleanor & Park is a Jacqueline Wilson novel for a slightly older generation, a refreshing tale of love between two imperfect characters. I personally can’t wait to get my hands on more Rainbow Rowell books. (Fangirl is waiting patiently on my shelf!)