The book starts out with 16-year-old Eleanor tentatively moving back in with her weak-willed co-dependent mother, her many younger siblings, and her drunkard stepfather after a year of being pawned off on a family friend. Plus-sized, redheaded, and nearly destitute in her wardrobe options, her first day at a new school—and first time on a new bus—goes about as well as one would expect. Her one bit of a social break comes when Park notices her plight, takes a sort of irritated pity, and assists by rudely ordering her to sit next to him. From that point on Eleanor both benefits and suffers under Park's unwitting social umbrella.
Initially, the two don't speak to each other at all. This oddly believable awkwardness goes on so long, Park doesn't seem to know how to break it once he begins to take a vague interest in the girl.
They are both outsiders, in a sense. Park is a music and comic book absorbed loner, who's half-Korean heritage and largely functional family set him apart from all the other kids in their neighborhood. And when he catches Eleanor reading his comics along with him on the bus ride, he immediately starts sending her home with them. This naturally progresses to him sharing his music with her, and this new found comradeship steadily transitions into hand-holding...rapidly intensifying from there into mutual attraction and deepening connectivity. (I've noted some reviewers balk at the speed of their relational development, but given Eleanor's unhealthy home life and Park's insecurities over his self-identity, this reader personally found their relationship rang with hormonal teen authenticity.)
Eleanor & Park is more than just a dated, star-crossed teen lovers premise with a lot of heavy 80's pop-culture references. It's a story that revolves around the timeless politics of fickle high school social-strata, juxtaposed to home-life drama—some of it petty and some of it desperately serious in nature. It takes a thoughtful-yet-impactful look at judging and misjudging others—be they friends, acquaintances, or family. There's also a poignant look at the perspective variances that can result from differences in class. But it's ultimately in the handling of Eleanor's horrendous domestic situation that this reader found the most enduring value.
The prose has a steady, organic flow, with peripheral characters gradually coming into clearer relational focus as the plot progresses. The emotional conveyances are frequently visceral, and the layers of conflict subtly unwrapped—which is likely to keep readers engaged. The main characters are both flawed and endearing in their own unique ways. And the ending, while somewhat flexibly unresolved, could still be considered satisfying.
I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook. I DO NOT recommend this. While the male narrator did a fine job of voicing Park, his attempts at Eleanor's lines were mind-wrenchingly distracting. But beyond that, this YA book has more frequent use of the F-word than I recall finding in even the grittiest thriller or sci-fi novels I've ever encountered. Yes, it was that excessive—and hearing it over and over poses a problem for audio learners like me (i.e. if I hear it, I tend to have trouble not spitting it back out at inopportune times.) Never mind the fact that I was listening to this in the car and I quickly discovered I couldn't play it with my kids in any kind of earshot—headphones on or no. Could the author have handled that differently? That's not for me to say. To her credit, the language was largely used to both demonstrate teenage immaturity and help reinforce identification of the more villainous characters. I simply regret that it makes me hesitate to recommend the book to the teens it might actually help. (Also, I worry it may inadvertently cause a sort of exclusivity—as not all kids facing abusive situations are accustomed to and/or enthralled with this much vulgarity.)
Language choices aside, I also would have liked to see more growth in the relationship between Park and his father--which I felt like we were being set up for but sort of fell along the wayside.