by Sara N.
Maybe you heard about Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park in a post about YA novels that adults might enjoy. Maybe you read about the controversy when it was banned from a Minnesota school library. Maybe you caught its glowing New York Times review.
And maybe you decided to pass because, ugh, not another YA novel. There are so many out there, and after a while, it's hard to separate the signal from the noise to figure out what's actually worth your time.
Let me tell you: This one is.
It's not set in a dystopian future. There are no robots or vampires or magic. There's not even a love triangle. Instead, it's a story about two odd ducks who find each other and fall into the heady rush of first love.
Rowell's exquisite novel, set in 1986, captures the confusion of teenagers navigating the social pitfalls of high school bullies and family expectations while trying to find a way to be with the person who makes their nerve endings crackle. Park is a half-Korean, semi-popular kid who starts sharing comic books on the school bus with Eleanor, the new kid in school whose red hair, curvy body, and weird fashion sense make her a target for the mean girls (and boys) at school. Worse, Eleanor comes from a family mired in grinding poverty, alcoholism, and abuse. Because it's impossible for her to breathe a word about her tender new relationship with Park at home, it becomes a struggle for the two to even communicate, let alone snatch time to be together. A simple, stolen phone call becomes a giddy thrill, and holding hands on the bus carries a weight of physicality and emotional meaning. When they finally can be together — you know, together together — they're some of the most beautifully written scenes I've ever read (and this is coming from a voracious reader of romance novels).
I raced through the book in a breathless rush, alternating between elation and devastation with the ebb and flow of their young love. But these are not the eye-rolling, whiney teenagers who often populate the pages of YA literature. Their reactions to the good and the bad around them are authentic and relatable. You want to hold both of them close to you to protect them from the slings and arrows of cruel teenagers, monstrous stepfathers, and the inevitable changes that come with growing up. You'll relish revisiting the fizz and spark of first love through these two lovely (and at times heartbreaking) teenagers.
Did I say this book had no magic in it? It does. The magic of the connection between Eleanor and Park will linger long after you've read the last page.