It’s no surprise that Rainbow Rowell chose the 1980s as the setting for Eleanor & Park, her first YA novel. After all, the 1980s were arguably the Golden Age of the teen movie (see The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Footloose), and Rowell’s novel is an homage to the John Hughes era so genuine, you can practically hear the snap of a slap bracelet every time you open the cover. It’s also one of those books that proves the rule that you don’t necessarily need to do something new as long as you do it very, very well.
Eleanor & Park‘s basic structure is Romeo & Juliet meets Pretty in Pink: clean-cut Park, cute and fairly popular, always feels like an outsider because he’s half-Korean in a town that’s whiter-than-white. Eleanor always feels like an outsider because, well, take your pick: her parents are divorced and her stepfather is abusive, her mom chose said stepfather over Eleanor or her million siblings, she’s so poor she has to wear men’s clothing from Goodwill, she’s overweight, she has frizzy red hair, and sometimes she gets so mad at the world she doesn’t know what to do. The unlikely pair meet on the school bus and, in possibly the nerdiest courtship of all time, form a bond through the silent sharing of superhero comics and punk rock. (Another good reason to set your story in the ’80s? Great soundtrack potential.)
Eleanor and Park are an adorable couple, and the book alternates between their points of view as it follows the development of their relationship. This is not a novel to read for plot (though it has some twists in the latter half), but for raw emotion. Remember how teenage love felt like your heart was filling up and ready to burst, or being ripped out and torn in two? How every moment was important and epic and it was going to be forever? And you never felt such happiness at a glance or a touch or a kiss, but the pain was the worst pain ever? Yeah, it’s pretty much like that. But with geek references and debates about the best songs by the Smiths.
Clearly Rainbow Rowell was once a teenage girl, and I can only assume she gets inside Eleanor’s head very well, because she sure seems to know what it’s like to be a teenage boy: Park’s fumbling, confusion, and false bravado, not to mention his nearly crippling bouts of FEELINGS could have come straight from my high school journal.
This is one of the best teen romances I have ever read, and I really wish it had existed when I was the same age as the characters. At a remove, I can admire its skill even as I thank my deity of choice that I don’t have to live through it again. And that feathered hair and high-waisted, acid-washed jeans went out of style.