As the only Korean in school, Park has always felt like an outsider. As a matter of fact, most of his peers’ parents grew up in his neighborhood, even his own Irish father. Park’s parents met and fell in love in Korea, so he is really only half Korean, but many of the other students treat him as if he were from another planet.
When Eleanor gets on the bus for the first time, Park realizes he is not so different from his classmates – not compared to Eleanor. She wears a jumble of clothing items, most of them discarded men’s garments. But Park knows what it is like to be the target of cruelty, so he lets her sit next to him. Park’s sense of decency gets the better of him, and slowly he befriends the girl, sharing comics and music. It takes a while for him to get past the series of barriers Eleanor has established to protect herself, but once he does he cannot help but fall in love with this overweight girl who never seems to brush her red hair.
Eleanor’s aloofness stems from a highly dysfunctional background: a well-off but self-centered father who wants nothing to do with Eleanor and her younger sister and brothers; a mother who is too scared to stand up to her abusive second husband. As the only person in the family willing to call the police when the violence seems fatal, Eleanor suffers the brunt of her stepfather’s anger. Park becomes the one piece of happiness in her life, but she never expects it to last.
With content aimed, at best, for older teens and a reading level for eight-to-ten-year-olds (excluding the vulgarity which permeates much of the book), Eleanor and Park is tough to categorize. It reflects some of what Meghan Cox Gurdon, children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, refers to as dark topics. While not as drastic as some of Gurdon’s examples, Rowell’s attempt to portray realistically the life of an abused teenage girl includes not only excessive coarse language, but grotesque bullying, unchaste behavior and a depressing overall tone.
The one bright light in the book is Park’s family. Park’s ability to see beyond Eleanor’s appearance stems from the fact that he comes from an intact family. He himself notes towards the end of the book that while all of his friends have divorced parents, his still love each other. This, more than their love for him, has given him courage and grounding – and this is what he wants for Eleanor and himself. It is a shame that the author could not convey this formidable message with more eloquent language and without the hero and heroine crossing appropriate lines of behavior. Realistic? Perhaps. Necessary? Not so sure.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.