In this keenly observed teen romance, Rainbow Rowell provides an emotionally charged, and deeply satisfying story about the way love transforms the world. Park, the half-korean/half-Irish taekwondo expert, comes from an intact family and takes little things for granted –like comic books and family dinners. He exists on the fringe of the cool crowd in high school. Eleanor’s family, on the other hand, could hardly be more dysfunctional. Living with an emotionally abusive step-father, and her four siblings, there never seems to be enough money for healthy meals, let alone decent clothing or batteries for music players. To make matters worse, Eleanor is bullied and harassed, at school, on the bus, and at home.
Told in alternating chapters from both Park’s and Eleanor’s points-of-view, Rowell’s story reveals the inner life of two young people learning about love. Neither character has it easy. Park’s mixed-race identity causes confusion both at home and in school, and Eleanor struggles with body image. Slowly, however, they begin to recognize the other’s beauty – both what’s on the outside and on the inside. Park and Eleanor’s relationship blossoms over the course of a school year. As they sit side-by-side on the bus, to and from high school each day, Park begins to open up Eleanor’s world by sharing first comic books, then music. Rowell’s prose offers intimate passages through which we witness their confusion, surprise, joy and vulnerability at falling in love.
In the mean time, we also watch in horror what Eleanor endures at home. The contrast with the gentle warmth that permeates Park’s, even when he and his parents disagree, makes Eleanor’s plight and her refuge in Park’s love the emotional core of the story.
Much of the non-relationship tension in the story comes from the mystery about who is writing foul, often graphically sexual messages on Eleanor’s notebook. In the final devastating reveal, Eleanor and Park must choose between safety and being together. Most of Rowell’s characters are deeply drawn. While Eleanor’s step-father is never anything but angry, evil and dangerous, it is easy to believe that people like him actually exist. Because of the dual voice nature of the narrative, Rowell allows the reader to see that even some of the minor characters, classmates with whom Eleanor clashes throughout the year, have more to them than she is willing to believe earlier in the novel.
This is a romance well worth reading, for those just experiencing the thrill and intensity of first love, and for those who can still remember what it felt like.
Sexual Content –SS– mostly because of the offensive nature and content of the mysterious notes Eleanor receives.
Violence — V – Park gets into a fight and Eleanor and her family live in fear of their step father’s abusive outbursts. Their mother frequently turns up in the morning with fresh bruises.
Questionable Behavior — ? – Very little teen drinking, although there is frequent reference to the parents’ drug use and alcohol abuse.