Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell opens powerfully and somewhat mysteriously. Before the first chapter begins in August of 1986, the reader is presented with an unlabeled section of just thirteen short sentences. The perspective is male, but it is not even identified as Park's perspective yet. The focus, however, is immediately evident: a girl named Eleanor is gone, and Park is plagued with longing for her. While he claims "he'd stopped trying to bring her back" and that she had "ruin[ed] everything," Park is clearly conflicted about her absence: he sees her everywhere, in dreams and in girls with red hair that remind him of her. He reflects that "everyone else seems drabber and flatter and never good enough" compared to her. She is not an easy girl to forget.
This is certainly an interesting way to start a romance. Rather than beginning at the beginning, the novel flashes forward in time, suggesting that this romance might not end happily or tie up neatly. As you continue to read the text, you might watch the relationship build and wonder, as each conflict is introduced and overcome, which chapter will finally send Eleanor out of Park's life and why. If you take a close look at the final chapters, you can pinpoint where in the timeline of the novel this introductory section takes place. As it turns out, it is not actually the story's end.
In chapter 54, Park helps Eleanor escape her abusive stepfather, driving all the way from Omaha, Nebraska, to Eleanor's uncle's house in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before they part, Park asks Eleanor to promise that she will call and write to him, and he tries to reassure himself that this will not be the last time that he sees her. In chapters 55 and 56, we find that Eleanor never called, and she hasn't responded to any of Park's numerous letters. She picks up the phone, even practicing dialing his number, but never actually makes the call. She never finishes any of the letters she begins to write back to him, but she keeps trying. Separated as they are, however, Park knows none of this. He keeps writing letters to Eleanor, but having no idea if she even reads them, he stops sending them.
This is where the novel catches up to the introduction, with chapter 57 opening with the same first line: "He'd stopped trying to bring her back." He stops writing, but he can't stop loving. This bittersweet chapter further explores all of the little things in life that remind him of Eleanor. It is not the last chapter, however. Chapter 58 follows, short and hopeful. Park had stopped trying to bring Eleanor back, as we learned from the very start of the book, but at the end, she brings herself back. Park receives a postcard, and, recognizing Elenor's handwriting immediately, "something heavy and winged took off from his chest." We are told that the postcard contained only three words, which remain unrevealed to the reader. Nevertheless, the postcard provides an answer to the conflict emphasized in the novel's opening.
In the introduction and the novel's penultimate chapters, everything that reminded Park of Eleanor underscored her absence and his lack of control; "he'd stopped trying to bring her back" because it hurt too much to fail. Eleanor's postcard in the final chapter offers hope and, perhaps, a new beginning for the pair.