I had heard a lot of people rave about this book, and this author, but not yet picked up any of her books. Young Adult isn't my preferred genre, although I don't mind it every once in a while. I get tired of the reliance on insta-love and problems that are not really problems. Still, this book was spoken of highly enough that I was at least interested. Then I was at the library, almost done the book I had on me, the library was about to close, and I still had an hour before I was meeting a friend. I ran over to the YA section (it's nearest the door, whereas the rest of fiction is on the third floor), and scanned the shelves quickly. This was only there in large print, but what the hell. I grabbed it and checked it out while I still could.
I read it over the Christmas holidays, and was pleasantly surprised. More than pleasantly surprised. This is a really good YA romance, with actual problems. The relationship brews slowly, in fits and starts, mediated by peers and parents.
Park is a music loving teen in the 1980s, on the punk side, not living up to his father's expectations, including his inability to drive a stick shift. He's half-Korean, and on the whole, his life is pretty good, other than standard teenage-sized angst. Eleanor, on the other hand, has problems. She's just moved back in with her mother, her stepfather and four siblings, after being kicked out by her stepfather a year or six months before. There's no money, not enough food, a stepfather who creeps her out and hurts her mother, and then she starts a new school, where the cool kids decide she's an easy target.
Eleanor and Park together starts when he impulsively lets her sit beside him on the bus. It takes a long time, and many baby steps. Eventually, as you could guess from the back of the book, they fall in love. Pure teenage love, with a tinge of desperation exacerbated on Eleanor's part by how dire her life is and how much she needs this lifeline.
Rowell does a really great job of capturing teenage emotion, and not making it overwrought or silly. When Eleanor and Park ache for each other, it's palpable, and more powerful for not being overdone. Neither are experienced, and how they try to slowly negotiate the physical side of a desperately tentative teenage relationship is delightful.
But the problems are real, and large, and become more and more troubling. They aren't going to be broken up by a silly misunderstanding. When things come to a head, they're a real head, and because they're teenagers, they don't have the freedom to find an optimal answer. All they're left with are terrible ones, and even adults who are sympathetic are limited in what they can do.
I keep using the word desperate in this review, and that feels like the right one. As teenagers, everything is intense and immediate, and this isn't written in such a way as to overdo it or undermine it. The world they inhabit is all too hurtingly real, and the dangers that lurk around the corner are unfortunately also a reflection of real-life problems that teenagers simply can't solve by themselves.
The adults occupy a good range of spaces, each given a personality rather than a role. Park's Mom is suspicious of Eleanor, then decides she likes her. Park's Dad knows Eleanor's stepfather of old, and subtly tries to help her as best he can. Eleanor's Mom is trapped in an abusive relationship and nowhere near ready to try to leave.
This is such a delightfully, painfully solid young adult novel that doesn't talk down it its characters or readers.