Eleanor & Park (out today!) is a debut YA novel for author Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99) and it’s a good one. Eleanor starts school mid-year. Classes have started, friendships have been made, cliques have formed, and the unofficial bus seating arrangements are fully entrenched. So when she shows up one morning, with wild red hair and rather unusual clothing, there is no space for her, even though there are plenty of seats. Finally Park, happy to keep his head down, tune out the world, and stay off the popular crowd’s radar, does what any reluctant high school hero would do, he angrily gestures towards the empty seat next to him and tells her to sit the fuck down. Thus begins one of the slowest, but extremely satisfying, courtship of two high school misfits.
Eleanor & Park is set in the mid 1980s, and there are tons of fun references to clothing styles, hair styles we’d all like to forget, music and The Latest in technology. Park is half-Korean; he reads comic books and listens to punk music. He does not quite fit in in his small Kansas town. Eleanor is living on the edge of poverty, in an extremely broken home, and keeps to herself, lest anyone should find out about her situation. She does not quite fit in in her small Kansas town. Neither of them feels lovable, and yet after sitting next to each other on the bus day after day, they fall hopelessly, and head over heels, for each other.
The bursts of racism, sexism, and homophobia that pepper this book strike me as particularly realistic for the 80s, but also made me slightly uncomfortable. Probably because they felt all too familiar. I don’t know how current young readers will interpret such comments. Will they understand that the book is portraying a specific era and not endorsing a certain kind of behavior? Will they chalk it up as the ignorance of dark times? Are the 80s really vintage already? Is this book going to be considered ‘Historical Fiction’? Eleanor & Park is a fun read as well as a reminder to stay true and value weird.