For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of YA books lately. I used to like them a lot more, then I kind of drifted away from them, and now I’m at a point where I think I can enjoy them more if I go into one with the right frame of mind. Like, they’re meant for young adults, they’re not technically adult fiction, they may have mature themes but don’t be surprised if the book as a whole isn’t as polished as fiction aimed at an older audience. With that said, I think I’ve started to be less distracted by things in YA fiction that normally would have irked me.
But Eleanor and Park — wow. It’s good. Like really, really good.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much YA lately, but the first thing I noticed about the book was that the writing was good. Really, really good. It honestly didn’t even feel like a YA book at times, and for that I was impressed. There weren’t many sentences that had to stop what it was saying to explain something to the reader, the characters felt extremely real and relatable (no feelings of “this is an adult trying to write teenage characters and it’s coming off cliche), the places felt real and relatable, all of the subplots more or less went somewhere or ended properly, it was paced well — while I can still see how the story may not appeal to older readers past their twenties, I think Eleanor and Park is more than capable of sitting on a shelf with other adult fiction.
The story’s concept itself will probably be the deciding factor of whether or not you’ll be interested in reading it — two socially awkward teens find themselves in love with each other, and they try to make a relationship work even though it may not be possible. The book’s cover art and font will probably give you a good idea of the tone of the book, so if it looks like something you might like, it probably will be. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.
Too bad the book’s summary on the flap doesn’t do it justice. There was a lot more to this story than just that. Eleanor is overweight; Park is way too skinny. There are a lot of body image themes spread throughout the story. Bullying is also a big part of the plot, at least for Eleanor. She’s the new girl and everyone harasses her because of her appearance. Park is pretty different from most of the bullies at school too, but he’s got a weird kind of social status because of his relationship with a couple of the bullies and because of his family’s role in the town’s history. He’s got somewhat of a free pass when it comes to bullying, and it takes a while before Eleanor starts to feel the effects of that pass as well.
And then of course, there’s the domestic issues. Park isn’t strong like his brother and father and often feels inferior to them. He doesn’t get along with his father all the time and feels like he’s constantly disappointing him. While I do feel like Park has some home issues, the spotlight shines more on Eleanor’s house situation.
Eleanor has an abusive stepfather named Richie, who verbally and physically assaults Eleanor’s mother and siblings. I know that sounds pretty cliche, but I was actually surprised at how well the author made me feel uncomfortable and fearful whenever a scene with him played out. To make things worse, Eleanor is unfortunately in a situation where her mother is either too scared to leave Richie or is in denial about what’s happening, and her siblings are all young enough to accept him as their new father despite his asshat-ery. He kicked Eleanor out of the house for a year before letting her come back, and Eleanor desperately wants to leave again. She can’t have any friends over, or have a boyfriend for that matter. Her family is very poor, and is even forced to take baths in a small tub off the side of the kitchen, barely concealed by a sheet. Eleanor’s home life is depicted very well, and it’s very unsettling.
The story’s written in third person, with sections switching focuses between Eleanor and Park. I love multiple perspectives in stories, so consider that another personal reason why I liked the book so much. By switching between Eleanor and Park, we get a much better insight into what their personal lives are like, something I feel a good romance story needs. It also stops the story from getting stale, although I don’t feel like the book was ever in any danger of doing that. This perspective switch also helps show how Eleanor and Park feel at the same time. For example, when Park says he loves Eleanor and wants to lose himself in her, it’s much more interesting to see her thought process of trying not to get attached to Park for either fear of retaliation from her step-father or doubting Park because of her own self-worth issues.
Despite trying to hide her relationship (and coming to terms that she is, indeed, in a relationship), Eleanor’s siblings find out, and her step-father soon discovers too. She comes home one day to the sound of him screaming and breaking things because of the news, and she runs away. She and Park formulate a plan to get her out of town. She has an uncle that lives in a neighboring state, and Park is going to drive her there with his newly acquired license. They part ways and, well…
I love the last set of pages after their parting. It hurts, but it’s so real I can’t help but love it. Park insists that they’re not saying goodbye because they’ll still phone and write each other. Eleanor leaves Park with that delusion because she’s too afraid of becoming attached to him. All of Park’s last sections consist of him having a very difficult time moving past Eleanor. All of Eleanor’s consist of ignoring Park and trying to get used to her new life. I’d say it’s cruel of her, but after getting to know her throughout the book I can completely see why she does it. Although something changes in the last chapter, with Park receiving a postcard from Eleanor with three words on it. We don’t know what those three words are. It could be “I love you.” Could be “I miss you.” Maybe even “I’m sorry, Park.” Who knows? But that’s the last scene, and I guess it’s up to the reader to make what they will of the relationship.
If there was anything I didn’t like about Eleanor and Park, it’s that the author sometimes overused ellipses. But I’m not a fan of ellipses in general, so take that as a personal complaint.
Honestly, I’d definitely recommend this to anyone that likes YA fiction, or for someone wanting to give YA fiction more of a chance. For everyone else, if the book sounded interesting to you by reading this post, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. As a side note, the book takes place in 1986, so there are plenty of references to that time period, so older readers can at least get that from the book if the story’s not for them (although they’re not so numerous that it becomes unbearable).
Info for my edition of Eleanor and Park:
- Published 2013 by St. Martin’s Press
- Hardcover, 328 pages
- ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9