Genre: YA / Contemporary / Romance
Many realistic first love stories are bittersweet, especially when they take place in high school. Set in Nebraska in the 1980s, Eleanor & Park captures the feverish passion of first love between two teenagers who don't quite fit in for different reasons. This is one of those wise books that surpass genre because anyone who's been to high school can relate to this story and the issues that it covers: first love, racism, family drama, abuse, and bullying.
What I liked:
- Relatable main characters - The story is told in limited third person and switches points of view between Eleanor and Park.
Park comes from a middle class background. He lives a relatively stable life with his Korean mother, European-American dad, and his brother. As a half-Asian who looks more Asian than white, Park has been singled out by people his whole life for looking different from the whites he grew up with. He does have friends and isn't at the bottom of the social ladder, though. When he sees Eleanor for the first time, he doesn't want to associate himself with her.
Eleanor comes from a lower working-class background and lives under the roof of an abusive stepfather with her mother and siblings, in which the entire family lives in fear of his next tantrum. The tension in the house is so scary it has them walking on eggshells to not provoke his temper. On the surface, she's a chubby, red-haired girl who wears tattered, ill-fitting clothing to school, and she is socially awkward when meeting new people.
"'I hate meeting new people,' she whispered.
'Because they never like me.'
'I liked you.'
'No, you didn't, I had to wear you down.'
'I like you now.' He put his arm around her.
'Don't. What if your mom comes in?'
'She won't care.'
'I care,' Eleanor said, pushing him away. 'It's too much. You're making me nervous.'"
- Deals with difficult subjects - This is the reason the Parents Action League has tried to take Eleanor & Park off the shelves at libraries - because it deals with uncomfortable issues about the ugly parts of society. But seriously, what kid hasn't heard racist jokes or witnessed bullying at school? Most kids do grow up with some drama in the family--there are skeletons in every family's closet. And shoving the issue of abuse under the carpet makes it worse for those kids who are going through it.
- Observations and commentary - Eleanor and Park are both smart. They see the way the world works around them and comment accordingly in their minds.
Honor students - black, white or Asia Minor - tended to be nicer. Maybe they were just as mean on the inside, but they were scared of getting in trouble. Or maybe they were just mean on the inside, but they'd been trained to be polite - to give up their seats for old people and girls. (page 27)
- Realistic love - No "love at first sight" or instant chemistry here. Eleanor and Park's relationship starts from scratch and quiet awkwardness. Then they bond over comics and music. Their conversations are some of the best I've ever read - they grow closer within each phone talk and meaningful interaction.
- "That stupid Asian kid" - Since they are in Nebraska in the 1980s, it's understandable that Eleanor would refer to him by his race because that is what makes him stand out from the pack. Even if it became begrudgingly affectionate, it got a bit grating after a while.
"Eleanor couldn't tell if the Asian kid who finally let her sit down was one of them..." page 9
"but it was that stupid Asian kid" page 10
"that stupid Asian kid" page 20
"That stupid Asian kid" page 31
"That stupid Asian kid" page 32
"the Asian kid" page 33
"(Stupid, perfect Asian kid.)" page 34
"She didn't need to be telling weird Asian kids anything. Weird Asian kid. She was pretty sure he was Asian." page 44
"...that stupid effing Asian kid" page 47
"Stupid Asian kid. Stupid, beautiful Asian kid." page 283
Overall, Eleanor & Park is a well-written love story with a realistic take on the lives of two funky-looking but sweet teenagers of different socio-economic backgrounds. The issues dealt by the characters are relatable to both teens and adults. The wise honesty exposes the uglier sides to life but also the hope that comes with the resilience needed for survival.
What is a realistic first-love story that you've read or watched before? Share in the comments!