I loved this YA novel about a couple of 16 year olds falling in love over comic books and music in mid-1980s Omaha. This novel has broad appeal — for teens because it deals with typical themes of angst, being misunderstood, dealing with obnoxious peers and parents who seem not to know you at all. For their parents, who were teens in the ’80s, it’s a wonderful trip back to the time when The Smiths were new music and The Watchmen was just coming out in weekly installments.
Eleanor is an unusual girl who stands out from the moment she gets on the bus. Her size (larger than other girls), her hair (long red curls) and her clothes (mens clothing accessorized with ribbons, patches and safety pins) make her an immediate target. No one will let her sit down and Park, who has been listening to his Walkman and trying not to get involved, is not eager to give up the empty spot next to him until the tension becomes all too much and he says to her, “Jesus-fuck … just sit down” and makes room. Not exactly an auspicious beginning to a romance. But as the weeks roll by, Park notices that as he reads his comics, Eleanor is reading them, too. Eventually, he has the nerve to speak with her, discuss and share music and comics with her and fall in love.
This sounds pretty blasé and mundane, but it isn’t for a few reasons. First, Eleanor’s home situation is rough. She has only just returned home after her step-father kicked her out for a year. Second, Eleanor and her family (mom, step-father and four other sibs) are poor. She doesn’t have a toothbrush, soap, proper food. etc. Third, Park is Korean-American in a very white all-American town. His father was a soldier and spent time in Korea, where he met and married his mother. Fourth, Park does not quite measure up to his father’s standards and he knows it. Finally, Park is on good terms with most of the cool kids at school, the complete opposite of Eleanor. Both Eleanor and Park feel that they have to hide their relationship, and for Eleanor in particular there is real danger in her parents’ discovering it.
The writing is so wonderful, I didn’t want to put this down until I had finished. Rowell can make you laugh and want to cry along with her protagonists. On Park’s quirkiness: “Park hated football. He cried when his dad took him pheasant hunting. Nobody in the neighborhood could ever tell who he was dressed as on Halloween. (‘I’m Doctor Who.’ ‘I’m Harpo Marx.’ ‘I’m Count Floyd.’)” Eleanor’s impression of Park’s car: “The Impala might not look pervy on the outside … but the inside was a different story. The front seat was almost as big as Eleanor’s bed, and the backseat was an Erica Jong novel just waiting to happen.” My favorite scene involves Park and his mother on Christmas Eve, after they’ve seen Eleanor and her family at the supermarket. Park’s mother had thought of Eleanor as a weird white girl and wasn’t pleased that Park was bringing her home after school. After seeing that Eleanor’s family is large and poor, like her own family had been, she tells Park, “I’m sorry for how I welcomed your Eleanor.”
This is a really wonderful novel not just for teens but for anyone who went to high school and fell in love, and for anyone who was young in the 1980s. And now I really wish I could find my old mix tapes!