This book is just excellent. It’s a coming-of-age book about two very brave sixteen-year-old teens in 1986 near Omaha, Nebraska. The story moves back and forth in point of view between Park Sheridan and Eleanor Douglas, but doesn’t alternate regularly. Rather, it alternates as the need arises, so sometimes it is by chapter, sometimes by paragraph.
Eleanor is the new girl in school, and she looks unconventional enough to make her the immediate butt of jokes and bullying. She has mounds of curly red hair and she is not thin. She wears bizarre clothes that might indicate a punk or rebellious stance if worn by another kid. In Eleanor’s case, however, it is the result of not having any clothes that don’t come from Goodwill or are hand-me-downs full of holes she must cover up with patches of fabric or safety pins or whatever else she can find.
On her first day in school, no one wants to let Eleanor sit next to them on the bus so Park, a good kid at heart and half-reject himself on account of being half-Korean, moves over and orders her to sit down:
The girl sat down. She didn’t say anything – thank God, she didn’t thank him – and she left six inches of space on the seat between them. Park turned toward the Plexiglas window and waited for a world of suck to hit the fan.”
But instead of a world of suck, Park and Eleanor discover they have a lot in common, and pretty soon, a very sweet romance begins between them. Eleanor can’t quite believe Park likes her – after all, she isn’t small, she isn’t “cool” and she (and the other kids) think she is fat. (Whereas, as far as Eleanor can tell, “everyone in Park’s family was skinny enough to be in a Special K commercial. Even his grandma.”) But Park likes everything about Eleanor, including her outré appearance. Listen to this wonderful, moving dialogue:
‘I like the way you look,’ he said. …
‘That doesn’t mean it’s nice.’ …
‘Fine then, you look like a hobo.’
‘A hobo?’ Her eyes lit.
‘Yeah, a gypsy hobo,’ he said. ‘You look like you just joined the cast of Godspell.’
‘I don’t even know what that is.’
She stepped closer to him. ‘I look like a hobo?’
‘Worse,’ he said. ‘Like a sad hobo clown.’
‘And you like it?’
‘I love it.’
As soon as he said it, she broke into a smile. And when Eleanor smiled, something broke inside him. Something always did.”
I want to emphasize too that this isn’t just “instalove,” nor is their relationship a gradual process without reason. We learn exactly why Park would find a girl like Eleanor to be like a breath of fresh air, and why Eleanor thinks of Park as “the sun”. Nor is there any immediate transformation in the two of them once they find each other. Eleanor has many problems to overcome, and Park keeps “finding new pockets of shallow inside himself.”
Evaluation: There are so many things to adore about this book. The characters are absolutely wonderful. Most of them are not only nuanced but lovable. And how great is it that Eleanor is not conventionally pretty or thin and Park is not conventionally tall or white, so they don’t meet the usual expectations about “attractiveness” either in YA books generally or in their school in particular. Nevertheless, the two find each other so interesting and smart and funny that each of them becomes irresistible to the other (and to the readers). Moreover, their delight in one another causes the others in their lives to reevaluate their first impressions.
Eleanor has a stepfather that is beyond evil and vile, and yet he is drawn in a totally believable manner, as is Eleanor’s abused mother. The way in which the author manages to make you ACTUALLY FEEL what it is like to like in an environment characterized by poverty and abuse and danger is nothing short of incredible. And the relationship between Eleanor and Park – so fantastically heart-soaring and refreshingly realistic.
So what would I have changed? Well, okay not much, BUT, I would have liked an extra sentence or two at the end. An epilogue, maybe. Something that made me feel like the world would be put right again for everyone concerned, instead of the ending seeming so darned true-to-life.
I highly recommend this deftly constructed and deeply moving book.
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013