This book struck a deeply personal chord with me. Reading some of the reviews that call the plot unrealistic have made me flinch, only because I lived through a love story very much like this one when I was a teenager. It struck me as quite real.
This book is marketed as a first-love story set in 1986. Down to the blurb from Gayle Forman on the front cover that calls it a sexy, romantic read. The marketing copy is a little misleading; this is not the breezy, cutesy tale it's presented as.
Don't get me wrong: the love story is
an important part of the plot. Eleanor and Park meet when he is the only one who slides over to make room for her on the school bus her first day at a new school. With her frizzy red hair and baggy flannel shirts, Eleanor doesn't quite fit in. Park is a bit meek, a comic book nerd who feels down on himself because he's not manly enough for his father. He has no interest in befriending this awkward newcomer until he realizes that she's reading his comic books over his shoulder. Gradually the two become closer and closer, and Park learns just how tumultuous Eleanor's home life is.
Eleanor lives with her mother, stepfather, and four siblings in a two-bedroom home. The family is extremely poor, which is why Eleanor wears such shoddy clothing to school. They barely have enough to eat, let alone a cassette deck or a telephone. Her stepfather only recently allowed her into the home, having kicked her out a year earlier. He's a comandeering man, abusive towards Elanor's mother and manipulative towards the younger children. Eleanor has to follow strict rules in order to keep on his good side and hides her budding relationship from her family lest she be thrown out again.
Park's life is considerably different. The son of a former military man and a Korean immigrant, he is practically the only minority in their Omaha high school. Though his parents are very much in love and happy, Park's father is hard on him for being "a pussy." This dynamic serves to emphasize Park's low self-esteem and his role as an outcast among his peers more than anything else - it's honestly a little underdeveloped and maybe one of the weakest parts of the book.
Stil, I found the book to be very honest and Eleanor a very empathetic character. I loved her voice, her strength, her resilience. My first love had a childhood much like Eleanor's, though it was nowhere near as severe by the time I met him. Reading Park's perspective reminded me very much of how I felt when I was seventeen, wishing I had the power to take all of that stuff out of the equation but not truly understanding it. My heart broke for the two of them and for Eleanor, knowing what truly difficult odds they were facing.
I was excited to read this book the moment I found out about it, as I enjoyed Rowell's first book, Attachments
, a much cuter, light-hearted romance. Then John Green started raving about this one and it BLEW UP. Like I said, it's being marketed as a teen romance, but there is so much more to this book than just the love story. The darker elements seem to have struck at least a few others as melodramatic or emotionally manipulative, but those elements struck me hard right in the middle of my gut. The book's not perfect - I'd have liked some more development of Eleanor's family, for instance - but once I started reading, I couldn't stop until my heart was in pieces.