Bullying, poverty, race issues, body image issues, parental abandonment and an abusive stepfather means that this YA love story isn’t an easy read. Having already read ‘Fangirl’ by Rowell, I knew to expect some John Greenesque type teen issues but it didn’t prepare me for just how grim this novel seemed at times.
Most of the issues belong to Eleanor, a slightly larger than average teen whose bright red hair and freckles alongside a unique style make her an easy target for bullies at her new school. We meet Eleanor just after her stepfather has allowed her to return home after being sent to live with her mother’s friend for a year. Her new home set up is completely dysfunctional with Eleanor forced to share a room with her four other siblings, money’s really tight and her mother is absolutely terrified of her abusive husband but too afraid of being alone to leave him.
When Park first sees Eleanor on the school bus, his assessment of her is brutally honest as he decides to avoid the weird new kid on the bus as much as possible. Very slowly and over many awkward journeys, Park and Eleanor begin to realise that they share a passion for music and comics with Park being the first to acknowledge that he has feelings for Eleanor. Eleanor is more hesitant – not just because of her chaotic background but because in comparison Park has an easy life with a stable family and is popular enough at school (though that’s not to say Park doesn’t have issues of his own). Eleanor is used to never having any privacy but Park and his family are able to offer her a secret place where she can be a normal teenager in a normal family and still ever so slowly, Eleanor is able to begin to open up to Park. There are times in the book where Eleanor is so infuriating because you just want her to speak up sooner and be a bit braver with Park but then you remember the risks she is taking and the guilt she is feeling leaving her family life behind.
Once it’s in full flow, the relationship between Eleanor and Park sweetens the entire feel of an otherwise heavy book but the clandestine nature of the relationship means that, as Eleanor keeps predicting, it can’t last as it is forever. The ending was bittersweet and still raw but as this novel is set in the 80s, I can’t help but wonder what became of Eleanor and Park and where they would be today. I would love it if Rainbow Rowell announced a sequel since she writes general fiction as well as YA but in the meantime, I’ll imagine my own happy ending as both Park and Eleanor deserve it.