St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013
Eleanor is an instant outcast in a new school, overweight, frizzy-haired, poor, and cornered into covering for her criminal stepfather. Park is an art-loving half-Korean boy in a Nebraska small town, with a family that expects boys to be tough and girls to be pretty. Once they discover each other on the school bus, when Eleanor begins reading Park’s comic books over his shoulder, well, then all they have to worry about is being two sixteen-year-olds in love, in a world that can separate them at the drop of a hat. So no smooth sailing here.
There are a few character turnarounds that feel a bit abrupt and underexplained, from the school mean kids and from Park’s parents. Also underexplained is Eleanor’s bizarre fashion sense. One of the first things Park notices about Eleanor is the way the ornaments she wears in her hair and the men’s neckties she attaches to herself in various unusual places draw extra attention to her. From Eleanor’s perspective, she’s extremely socially guarded and averse to both attention and artifice, put off by even the idea of wearing makeup. It would have been nice to get to understand from her side what thought and intent went into the strange choices of eye-catching self-decoration that Park finds so baffling.
Everything about Eleanor and Park’s relationships with each other and with their respective families is rendered with extraordinary care. In spite of their mutual desperation for understanding, Eleanor and Park’s love for each other grows with a careful slowness that demands to be taken seriously. Eleanor’s abusive stepfather is not the tasteless and cartoonish plot device that so many fictional characters suffer from at home, but a chillingly grounded reality, made all the worse by the cowed and forever excuse-making, rationalizing mother that Eleanor loves but can no longer trust. Park’s family life is less nightmarish but even more complicated, a crushing maelstrom of gender expectations passed down to him from the flawed but well-intentioned people who genuinely love him.
Eleanor and Park themselves are not the kinds of fictional teen outcasts who just need contact lenses and a little confidence to make the world notice their obvious hotness either, but the true to life and sincerely underrepresented kind -- they’re a significantly overweight girl and a self-stated unmasculine Asian guy for starters -- whose existence most fiction would prefer to ignore. Even the ’80s period backdrop adds to the general feeling of authenticity, freeing the book from the scramble to give every detail that transient of-the-moment quality and instead relaxing it into a flavor of its own.
The ultimate question of Eleanor and Park, whether or not it’s possible for two teens to find stability and comfort in each other, in spite of the instability of their still-forming lives, is explored with optimism but without sentimentality, and with a hauntingly open end.
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