Eleanor and Park are two teens who miraculously fall in love after ending up as seatmates on the school bus. Park, a half Korean-American boy, lives with his parents and younger brother. His grandparents live next door. His parents are not only still married but they clearly love each other. Eleanor, on the other hand, lives with her mom and stepdad Richie. She and her four siblings all share one bedroom and tip-toe around the house trying to not make Richie angry. He is clearly a powder keg ready to blow. The kids can't go live with their biological father because he doesn't want them. They are stuck in a nightmare.
Even though Eleanor and Park become friends, life at this inner city high school in Omaha is difficult for Eleanor. She doesn't look and act like a "normal" teen and she is teased and harassed endlessly by her classmates. Just about the only good thing in her life is Park, and Rowell does an amazing job describing her deepening relationship with him through the words on each page.
Not wanting to give away any of the plot, my summary doesn't do the book justice. Just suffice it to say it is way better than I am making it sound.
The story is told in two voices in alternating chapters so we get to know, and love, both Eleanor and Park equally. As their relationship develops and deepens we also get to know and appreciate Park's parents, who play an important role in the story. One thing that drives me absolutely crazy is YA novels where the adults (parents, teachers, pastors, etc.) are absent, clueless, or worthless. Eleanor's mom and dad may have been worthless but at least the school counselor and Park's parents were "good guys" and stepped in. The audiobook format is perfect, too, with two voice actors, Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra, giving depth and texture to our characters.
Rowell seems to really "get" teenagers. Everything out of the mouths of these teens seemed authentic and true. I wanted to cry as I read it because I suddenly realized that the horror that Eleanor lives in the pages of this book is likely the horror that some of my students are currently actually living. The dialogue between Park and Eleanor and the surprising way that they treat each other is such an affirmation to the potential within all of us and a testimony of how we should treat one another. There is nothing I don't like about this book, except perhaps the ugliness. But, of course, without the ugliness we couldn't have the transcendence either.
(I'm still crying a little bit and really should get up and go wash my face and drink a glass of water...Sigh.)
As I was casting about on the web a minute ago looking for more on the book, author, etc. I ran into a NY Times review on the book written by John Green. Yes, JOHN GREEN, the author of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska. His review is way better than mine. Please go and read it.
But first let me say I think anyone who is a teenager, has teenage kids, works with teens, likes YA lit, or is human should read this book. And I'd recommend that you read it as soon as possible. My library doesn't have a copy of this book yet but as soon as I make myself presentable, to the bookstore I go to pick up a copy. I want it available for my readers Monday. It is the best YA book I've read in 2013, by far.
Here are two quotes from the book. No spoilers, just hand-holding...
“Holding Eleanor's hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
“The first time he'd held her hand, it felt so good that it crowded out all the bad things. It felt better than anything had ever hurt.” ― Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park