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April 23, 2013
Read this YA Book If…
Eleanor & Park: Romance for Misfits
by Erin Cowles

Eleanor and Park aren't the typical stars of a teen romance. Eleanor is overweight and wears weird clothes. Park is the only Asian kid in his school, and he loves comic books and punk rock. But Rainbow Rowell puts them front and center in Eleanor and Park, her first YA novel, and she has done so beautifully.

When Eleanor and Park wind up sharing a seat on the school bus, they form a connection through the comic books she reads over his shoulder. Rather than spending the novel building up tension to the moment when the two confess their feelings for each other, the novel centers on their struggle to make their relationship work.

Eleanor comes from an abusive home, and she comes into the relationship with a lot of emotional baggage, as well as a very real threat of abuse from her stepfather if he were to find out about their relationship. The big question of the novel isn't if they love each other, but if the reality of their lives will be too strong for them to fight against.

Despite the heavy themes, there is plenty to swoon over. This book has my favorite hand-holding scene ever in YA literature, merging Park's very poetic response (“Holding Eleanor's hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive”) with Eleanor's adorably geeky, “Eleanor Disintegrated. Like something had gone wrong beaming her onto the Starship Enterprise … Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her. That would be awesome.” Rowell captures the giddy, butterfly-in-the-stomach feelings of first love in a charming and fresh way.

My favorite aspect of this story was Park's parents. They aren't perfect. His mother initially thinks Eleanor is too weird for her son, and even tries to make her over into something she's not. His father gets frustrated with Park's lack of interest in “manly” things. But they apologize. They do better. They love their son and are there for him when he needs them. And, most importantly, they love each other.

In a poverty-heavy neighborhood full of broken homes and apathy, Park even credits the goodness and hope in his life to his parents' love for each other. Their example teaches Park that true love can build something beautiful, and it is worth fighting for.

Eleanor lives in an abusive family, and the language of an abusive home is part of her world and part of the voice in her head (a fact that frustrates her). This book is full of profanity and sexual slurs. It is viewed as ugly and cruel, not glamorous and cool, but it is pervasive. Eleanor and Park are also not Mormon teens, and although they don't have sex, they do things that aren't approved in the FSOY pamphlet. Some minor characters are also seen drinking alcohol.

Despite this grit, this romance is adorable. I'm not a sentimental kind of girl. Most romances really annoy me because the factors keeping the main characters apart seem so arbitrary. Not so in Eleanor and Park. They face abusive home life, cultural differences, and bullying. I loved watching them expand and improve as they did so.

Read this book if...

Target audience: Girls, ages 15+.

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