Eleanor and Park: An Unlikely Duo

15745753If you are going to read one review of Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell, don’t read this one. I’m serious. Instead you should read this New York Times book review, written by John Green. I’m pretty sure when you look up rave in the dictionary, what you see is a copy of this review. It was compelling enough that my nana cut it out of the paper and mail it to me, and intriguing enough that upon reading it I immediately sent it to Alee with the request that we make this our next review. She quickly agreed. So read that review. It will convince to read the book, better than I can.

While reading the book, I worried that it wouldn’t live up to the high expectations set by the review. This was not a problem. It lived up to the hype.

I’m going to assume that you’ve read the NYT review, because otherwise you are just really bad at following directions. But in case you are just really bad at following directions, here’s a short summary:

Eleanor is from a poor household, like five kids one room, not enough to eat, no toothbrushes, drunk step dad poor. She is also overweight – although some comments in the book make me think she is just curvy, but that is unclear and probably not the point. Most importantly is that she just plain doesn’t fit in and is an immediate target for bullying at school and at home.

Park, is a half-Korean, half-white, sensitive lover of comics and music. He is in one of the only Asian families in is community. He fits in primarily because of living next door to the class alpha-male, but still doesn’t feel like he belongs and he is also in the middle of a serious power struggle with his father.  On Eleanor’s first day at his school, they sit next to each other on the bus and through out the year end up sharing their music, their comics, their fears, and then their hearts.

It is no accident that 90% of my summary is character description. The writing is excellent. It is clear and unobtrusive in a way that never takes you out of the story. However it is the character development that makes this novel uniquely great. They are characters unlike those I’ve read in any other book. Both expose strong ideas and issues throughout the book (racism, poverty, bullying), without being clichéd.

I felt the portrayal of poverty, and its negative impact on children, was particularly well handled. Working with disadvantaged children I know there are many risk factors for failure that come with poverty. Some of these are easy to see. What is hard to see, and well portrayed through Eleanor, is the incredible stress of not feeling safe at home, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, and trying to keep a façade going for the rest of the world. I’m not going to lie, the depiction of her life is both gritty and scary. Both families felt very real, but hers broke my heart.

I will admit, that Eleanor & Park is a little weak on plot, but the character development more than makes up for it.  The romance that develops is pretty compelling – I read the book in two sittings – and includes the best description of how exciting it is to hold someone’s hand that I’ve ever read.  Seriously, it is sexier than anything that may or may not happen in the back seat of a car later in the novel.

Eleanor & Park may not end up being your favorite book. It certainly isn’t mine. But if you decide to skip this one, you will definitely be missing out. Don’t take my word for it, take John Green’s.

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