Oh, the '80's: Cassette tapes. Walkman. Enormous headphones. Rewinding. Perms & Bangs. Glasses that swallowed people's faces. Not that I remember much of the '80's. Come to think of it, I'm not sure anyone I know would want to remember this era. I can still remember the first cassette tape I ever bought - it was a Backstreet Boys album. Should I admit this? Probably not. Please don't judge too harshly.
Anyway, Eleanor and Park is a story set in 1986 in which two teens attempt to survive school by laying low and trying to remain invisible. Eleanor's unruly red hair, large stature, and baggy clothing make her anything but feminine and her classmates call her "big red." Likewise, Park's mother is Korean and his father is Irish, which makes his family stand out in the community.
One day, Park reluctantly lets Eleanor sit next to him on the bus. Bus rides to and from school are filled with awkward silences and become a daily event they both dread until Park catches Eleanor glancing at a comic book he is reading. This common interest ignites a friendship that quickly evolves into something more.
Eleanor and Park's interactions are sweet and believable. These characters act their age, which is something that doesn't always happen in books written for young adults. They may have fallen in love faster than I would have liked, but their relationship isn't over the top or melodramatic. It's easy to root for them and want them to find happiness together.
Rainbow Rowell also does an excellent job depicting domestic abuse and its impact on Eleanor's family. While we don't actually see the physical abuse, we feel Eleanor's fear and desperation to get away from her stepfather. Many books depict varying degrees of domestic abuse, but the events that transpire are often overly dramatic and function merely to advance the plot. Rowell shows the daily struggles Eleanor endures living with someone who exerts control through fear, manipulation, bribery, and guilt. It's easy to hate Eleanor's mother, but I felt sympathy for her as well. Unfortunately, there are many women who stay in relationships with men just like Richie, and abusive relationships like this one are a lot more prevalent than people think.
The only thing I didn't care for in the book was the reaction Park's parents had to Eleanor's family situation. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't believe parents would permit their teenage son or daughter to become so involved in a dangerous situation, or wouldn't call the police when it is apparent that Eleanor's life is in danger. The climax of the book also felt rushed. I don't mind open-ended conclusions, but I would have liked a little bit more closure than we were given.