Verdict: An 80’s-nostalgic love story between two outcasts that can be easily appreciated by teens (and older) today. It has Romeo and Juliet undertones and references, but manages to avoid cliché or senseless tragedy.
Perfect for: Readers who love tales of romance between relateable, realistic characters; Aficionados of alternative 80s music and 80s comic books.
Summary: Set in Omaha in 1986, Eleanor, a new student at her high school, is instantly deemed to be a mockable outcast due to her unruly mop of red hair, “fat” body, “weird” clothes, and her redneck stepdad and rundown house. Park is socially in limbo: his dad is a strapping white guy veteran with generations of roots in the area, but his mom is from Korea; usually Park is tolerated or ignored by his classmates, but other times he becomes the target of teasing because of his Asian features. Park tries his best to exist under the social radar, but when Eleanor ends up as his school bus seatmate, he fears that he will be associated with her and therefore be teased as relentlessly as she is. Over the weeks, however, Park’s empathy for Eleanor begins to outweigh his fears and he begins to make small gestures of friendship. Eventually the two find that they have more in common with each other than anyone else they know. But can they let a relationship develop in the hostile social environment of their high school? And can Eleanor risk the wrath of her controlling, alcoholic stepdad?
I loved seeing the relationship between Eleanor and Park develop so naturally in fits and starts over time. I loved that the obstacles that might keep them apart were realistic: a combination of social pressures, family pressures, and internal doubts and fears. So many teen romances are based on silly misunderstandings, but the challenges our protagonists face are so very very real. I loved that every character had shades of gray, even the characters that you think you love, and those that you think you hate. I thought the plot was taut and carried an undercurrent of menace and danger that made me keep turning the page to see if everything would turn out alright.
I think there are some aspects of the story that some people will like more than others. I liked the comic book references, but they are not for everyone. Likewise, the 80s music references meant nothing to me, but will mean something to others. I don’t think it’s that important to have the same cultural references as Eleanor and Park, because it is more important to recognize that feeling of bonding with someone over common interests. But I think people who really like The Watchmen and The Smiths will appreciate the book even more. There were also quite a few Romeo and Juliet references which felt a little heavyhanded to me, and made the already dramatic circumstances of the story feel a little bit overwrought – but I don’t think everyone will feel that way, especially teens who are themselves going through intense emotions around love, family, and school.