Let’s face it – high school can be ugly. First, you’ve got the hormone-induced breakouts and awkward growth spurts that make you feel ugly. Then there’s the anxiety and haunting self-doubt that make you act ugly. That’s why it seems almost miraculous when something beautiful happens in the midst of all that ugliness, as it does in Rainbow Russell’s Eleanor & Park.
The story begins on the school bus in 1980’s Omaha. Eleanor is new in town and she’s different. VERY different. She’s a big girl with wild, curly red hair and an eclectic taste in clothing that begs to be ridiculed. Park has lived in Omaha all his life, but he’s different, too. He’s small for his age (even smaller than his younger brother now) and more interested in New Wave music than Cornhusker football. When no one else will give Eleanor a seat on the bus, Park reluctantly slides over and lets her sit down.
What no one at school knows is that Eleanor’s home life is frighteningly unstable, with her mother, four younger siblings and a powder keg of a stepfather crammed together in a tiny house. In contrast, Park has a secure and caring family, but finds himself increasingly chafing at his dad’s expectations and wondering if anyone really understands him. Each has a unique coping mechanism – Eleanor uses her brash exterior as a barrier, so no one can get too close, and Park has perfected a go along, get along strategy of not making waves.
Over several weeks of bus rides, these two outsiders form a tentative connection over comic books and mix tapes. This soon blossoms into friendship and eventually, cautiously, into love. Eleanor and Park discover that the things that make them different are the very things they like best about each other. Together, they create a haven where it’s okay to be your true self, no matter what the bullies and mean girls might think. It’s a beautiful thing. And it’s strong enough to withstand the impact when Eleanor’s situation at home inevitably explodes.
Now, I must confess that I met my husband in high school, so I have a special fondness for stories about teenage romance. Nevertheless, I think Eleanor & Park would be a very sweet reminder of first love for just about any reader. (It’s also a treasure trove of cultural references if you happened to be in high school during the 1980’s.) Most importantly, I hope it might prompt young people to think twice before they pass judgment, to take a risk and reach out, and to be kinder to themselves and to others.