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Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Like most writers, I am an avid reader. I’ve buried my nose in books of any topic, ranging from economic development theory to keto vegetarian recipes. But when it’s time for a little dessert reading, my heart longs for young adult fiction. Recently, I dug into Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. It had been on my Amazon “good reads” list for months, and I finally got to check it out at my local library. All I can say is “Wow.” This book deserves every bit of positive feedback it was given, and then some. Here are the reasons I couldn’t put Eleanor & Park down.

If you’re planning to read the novel, don’t keep reading my post! There are some spoilers in here.

It’s so raw and real.

This book goes into the minds of two high schoolers that couldn’t be more different, and shows you the innermost workings of their minds. Eleanor and Park bring the reader into their thoughts about each other, their lives, and surviving high school. Rowell doesn’t hold back from opening the reader up to the real stories of high school outcasts that just so happen to find first love in one another. I loved how real each line felt, like no one was pretending to be something they weren’t. Imagine being that brave in high school.

It’s provocative.

Rowell doesn’t appease readers with a happily ever after. I know that I usually seek an ending in any book that has the protagonists where they’re meant to be. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. In Eleanor & Park, the couple in love don’t end up together for now. But you never know what the future held for them.

Eleanor’s future looks bright. She’s removed from a toxic, abusive home environment, and is placed with loving extended family. Even though she has to sacrifice staying with Park, they both know this is what she needs. In the last few chapters, when Park drives Eleanor up to her aunt and uncle’s house in another state, my chest tightened. How beautiful is a love story when we let go the people we love for their own good? Infinitely.

It’s not your average teenage love story.

The main message so many teen novels give is that a boy can save you. Spoiler alert: he can’t! Rowell takes that narrative and turns it on its head. She makes it clear that a boy can’t save you. Park does martial arts and even gets in a fight to defend Eleanor from bullies on the bus. But Eleanor makes it clear that she doesn’t want that. She doesn’t want Park making a huge deal out of her being ostracized at school. She doesn’t want him to feel like he has to save her, even though she needs healing from so many abusive people in her life.

It’s clear that Eleanor is young and in love, with stars in her eyes at a boy in many parts of the book. She often thinks about how she’d rather be with Park, and how perfect he is to her. In these ways, this novel veers more towards your average teen romance. But she still keeps some parts of her life separate from him until the plot with her home life escalates. It’s refreshing to read a teen love story where the female protagonist is a normal, lovestruck teenager, but doesn’t see her boyfriend as someone that will fix all the problems in her life.

Eleanor & Park definitely strays from the average romantic novel when they are left apart at the end. In most YA fiction novels, the happy couple gets their ending that satisfies readers and makes us believe in love. But Eleanor & Park is about so much more than that. It’s about two kids that are trying to find and be themselves amidst the pressures of high school, families, and the bleakness of the future. They just happen to fall madly, unexpectedly in love.

It doesn’t shy away from hard topics.

My absolute favorite thing about young adult fiction novels is their commitment to be true to the hard stuff. Through high school and first love, they also talk about abuse, body image, bullying, even sexual assault. Eleanor & Park is no different.

Rowell brings the reader to the realities of child abuse at the hands of a stepfather when we cross the threshold of Eleanor’s house every day after school. We question the necessity to maintain a certain type of appearance when Park starts wearing eyeliner to school and Eleanor only wears baggy clothes from the men’s section. We want Eleanor to be strong when Tina and her mean girl minions throw Eleanor’s regular clothes in the toilet during gym class. We’re rooting for Eleanor’s mom to leave an abusive marriage and get her children to a safe place. Pulling those kind of strong emotions out of a reader is no easy feat, and Rowell does it the whole way through Eleanor & Park.

This novel made it to my list of favorites. It made me feel so much, and I felt like I was walking in their shoes every step of the plot. Eleanor & Park is a masterpiece. Get comfy, grab a cup of warm, and dive into one of the best stories you’ll read all year!

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