The love story at the center of Eleanor and Park is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking; with Rainbow Rowell expertly capturing all of the yearning, fear, and frustration of young love. Our two main characters are the charming outsiders Park — a small, half Korean boy more into punk rock than football — and Eleanor — a poor, overweight, woefully neglected girl, who lives with constant bullying in and out of school. Despite all odds, the two come together — bonding over their shared love of music and comic books — and begin to build a beautiful, tender romance.
For a few short months, the magic of their love makes even their worst days rosy; creating a force field around the two so that their tormentors are stripped of their power. However, soon their relationship becomes public knowledge and the magic surrounding them fades. Park’s parents are step in: warning him that mixing with a “not good girl” will bring him nothing but trouble. Eleanor’s family also warns her off. Her abusive and sadistic step-father turning her relationship into something torrid that he uses to taunt her about her (imagined) promiscuity; her mother terrified that Eleanor is bringing herself too much to the attention of her stepfather begs her to abandon Park. Even the other kids at school find reasons to try to stop their budding romance.
Even when it is hard, even when they both feel completely out of their depths, Eleanor and Park have each other and their small stolen moments: on the bus ride to school sharing tapes and comic books. Or in Park’s house (“Eleanor hadn’t known there were houses like that…families like that. They were the Cleaver’s! She worried she would never belong in Park’s living room. She felt like she would never belong anywhere.”) They become inseparable and wildly in love! “Eleanor wanted to lose herself in Park. To tie his arms around her like a tourniquet. If she showed him how much she really needed him, he’d run away.” “Park wondered how this had happened — how she went from someone he’d never met to the only who mattered…when Park hugged Eleanor he wished that they could go through life like this. That he could physically put himself between Eleanor and the world.”
Soon, the time Eleanor spends away from her dysfunctional family draws notice and the horror’s her parents inflict on her grow into something Eleanor cannot safely face. It is only with Park’s love and patience, the kindness of his family, that she can receive the help she so badly needs.
“I just can’t believe that life would give us each other,” he said. “and then take it back.”
“I can,” she said, “Life’s a bastard.”
“But it’s up to us not to lose this,” he said softly, “it’s up to us.”
The story is a reminder of many battles teenagers fight every day as they try to make a live of their own while still under the control of every adult around them; they are simultaneously limited in their choices and over-punished for their mistakes. Over and over adult insist that love is not real for teens, that it is something saved only for adults, which is as ridiculous as it is sad. Eleanor & Park is also a reminder of the power of love to lift up even the most downtrodden and give them hope for a better life, one in which at least one person treasures them above all others and just as they are.
The limitations and restrictions the characters feel themselves placed under — those draconian rules set by angry and misguided adults — made me feel overwhelmed with gratitude that my teenage years are well behind me and my choices belong to no one but me. I beg of you to read the book and then think of your own teenage self with love and kindness, for surely even in the worst of times, you were trying your very best…and then be thankful that the dark days of young adulthood have passed. Bonus points if you have created a life of love and happiness in adulthood.