Ode to the mixtape: a review of Eleanor & Park

It starts with a bus ride and a begrudgingly shared seat. Eleanor is the new kid, slightly overweight with unruly red curls who wears hand-me-down clothes, and who is therefore an easy target for bullying. She comes from a family of poverty and a home with an abusive stepfather. Park is the complete opposite. He is a smart kid who tries to stay under the radar but fits right in at school. He comes from a loving family, but he still stands out as the only half-Korean kid in a white neighborhood. Both are misfits who ignore each other at first, but it goes from stealing glances to reading comic books together, from exchanging mixtapes to a hesitant friendship and the possibility of first love.

Set against a background of ‘80s music and comic books, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is a story of family issues, first love and growing up. It is one of the most hopeful stories I have ever read, because Rowell perfectly captures the feeling of finally being understood, even when it feels like the entire world is against you. She shows what it’s like to have your world revolve around your first love, and though it was a little overwhelming at times, I think this perfectly describes adolescence. In other words: Rowell knows exactly how to describe being a teenager. Furthermore, I loved the juxtaposition of Eleanor’s terrible home life and Park’s struggle for identity, and the innocence and simplicity of their friendship.

Despite some racist comments that really were not necessary, Eleanor & Park is a charming story about finding someone to get you through the dark times and growing up when it feels like the whole world is against you. I like Rowell’s writing because she doesn’t gloss over the serious stuff. The novel is about violence, poverty and differences between ethnic groups. Sometimes it hurt and sometimes it got messy, but it is also honest and colorful and imperfect and wonderful. Told from the alternating points of view of two unusual main characters and through chapters that go from a couple of sentences to multiple pages, Eleanor & Park is a truly authentic piece of literature with pop culture references that made me very happy.

“You’re not the Han Solo in this relationship, you know.”
“I’m totally the Han Solo,” she whispered. It was good to hear her. It was good to remember it was Eleanor under all this new flesh.
“Well, I’m not the Princess Leia,” he said.
“Don’t get so hung up on gender roles,” Eleanor said.


Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Release date: April 12, 2012

Header image courtesy of Amazon.com


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