First love. Inching towards a sound, meaningful relationship. Believable and sweet, with memories of your own first love bubbling up from the beyond. Issues of a bad, sinister step-parent, identity, and bullying all wound up in the story too. Eleanor & Park figure it out--together. Says Park of Eleanor, "Holding Eleanor's hand was like holding a buttefly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive." Won a Printz honor award too for 2013.
A bus seat puts misfits Eleanor and Park in the same orbit, but a comic book brings them together. Neither half-korean, insular Park nor big, ostentatious-by-necessity Eleanor thinks much of their seat-partner - he thinks she looks like something that wouldn't survive in the wild, and she's far too distracted by her disastrous home life to give him any real attention at all, even IF the only thing he's ever said to her involved angry swearing. But when Park realizes she's surreptitiously reading the comics plopped open in his lap, he starts giving her stacks of them to smuggle home under the eye of her drunken, abusive step-father. A friendship born of X-men, The Smiths, and batteries slowly becomes a romance so deeply real that their lives can't help but change. An expertly crafted romance set in 1986, Rainbow Rowell's sophomore novel depicts the desperation of first love, the pain of being trapped in one's own life, and familial tension without becoming melodramatic or self-pitying. While Park's race and Eleanor's size both receive focus, neither is treated in such a way that the characters are reduced to that one characteristic. Nor do the characters come across as too saintly - each character has faults that make them more, not less, relatable. Rowell also takes full advantage of her not-too-distant-past setting to interweave several pop culture references into the narrative naturally, secure in the knowledge that some 26 years later, those particular references still remain relevant. An emotional tale that ultimately leaves it to the reader to decide whether young love will thrive or die, "Eleanor & Park" might not empower its protagonists to change the world they live in, but every page feels undeniably real.