Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364
Eleanor and Park opens with Park thinking about Eleanor and how he can't bring her back. Then it flashes back to the past and Park on the bus thinking about music and interacting with Steve and Tina, two bullies who attend school with him. When a new girl gets on the bus and people refuse to sit with her, Park lets her sit with him despite his reservations.
The girl on the bus, Eleanor, begins to sit next to Park regularly. They talk about music and comic books; during their discussions, they learn that they have a lot in common. Eleanor's home life is very unhappy. She lives with her mother, siblings, and abusive stepfather, Richie. Her mother tries to hurry the kids out of the common areas before Richie gets home.
As Eleanor gets more comfortable at school and with Park, she gets frightening, sexual messages written in her textbooks. At home, she listens to her mother crying while Richie screams at her. She lives in fear of her or her siblings upsetting Richie. Meanwhile, Park gets closer to his parents as they begin to accept things about him that they don't like. For example, he wears eyeliner. Park's parents also grow to like and care for Eleanor.
Ultimately, Park falls in love with Eleanor. She seems to love him too, though she can't make herself say it back. When she goes home to find her things destroyed and realizes Richie not only ruined them but also has been leaving her obscene notes, she realizes she's not safe. She finds out he's been out looking for her. Steve and Tina help her escape the house, and Park drives her to her extended family so she can live somewhere safe.
While they're apart, they both think about each other. Park writes to her, but she doesn't respond, because she decided that they were just going to stop if they couldn't be together forever. His parents tell him it appears that Eleanor's mother took the kids and left Richie. He gets a postcard the day after prom from Eleanor that is only three words long, and it appears that Park feels hope for the future.
Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1063
Author: Rainbow Rowell (b. 1973)
First published: 2013
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Realism; Romance
Time of plot: 1986
Locale: Omaha, Nebraska
Park Sheridan, a sixteen-year-old loner
Eleanor Douglas, the new girl on Park's bus
Min-Dae “Mindy” Sheridan, Park's mother
Richie Trout, Eleanor's abusive stepfather
Steve Murphy, a bully at Park and Eleanor's school
Park Sheridan, a high school sophomore whose mother is a first-generation Korean immigrant, is one of few kids of Asian heritage in Omaha, Nebraska. Though he has grown up in the city and enjoys a fairly normal home life, he is still an outcast in school, where he has few friends. Park often retreats into his own world, listening to contemporary music on his Walkman while reading superhero comic books, particularly on the half-hour bus rides to and from school.
One day, a new student boards the bus: Eleanor Douglas, a chubby girl with flaming red hair, who dresses in unconventional fashion. Because nobody else on the bus will allow the new girl to sit down, and Steve Murphy and his friends loudly make fun of her, Park takes pity and offers to share his seat. Day after day, they ride together, never talking—though they share several honors classes at school—until Park notices Eleanor reading his comics over his shoulder. Making a concession to a common interest, he opens the comic book wider and turns the pages slowly enough so she can read along. After a time, he lends her comics to read at home.
So begins a budding, often awkward, sometimes painful romance between two social outcasts of vastly different backgrounds. While Park is open about his middle-class family, Eleanor is reticent, because her living situation is embarrassing: she shares a bedroom with four younger siblings in a tiny, squalid apartment where Richie, her drunken, drug-dealing, abusive stepfather dominates. Her family is dirt-poor; their food is bought at discount groceries and Eleanor's odd clothing comes from second-hand stores. To avoid talking about her home life, Eleanor discusses comic-book characters and music with Park. They hesitantly touch and draw closer together, and eventually their relationship deepens.
Because Eleanor is the target of school bullying—her textbooks are scribbled with nasty phrases, her clothes are dumped into a toilet so she has to walk home in her gym outfit—Park becomes protective of his girlfriend. One day, when Steve insults Eleanor yet again, calling her “Big Red,” Park snaps. He attacks Steve with a move learned in taekwondo class, injuring the larger boy before Steve blacks Park's eyes and breaks his nose. Both boys are suspended from school for fighting.
Park and Eleanor spend as much time together as possible; Eleanor often crawls out of her bedroom window at night to meet him. Park invites Eleanor over to his house, and she begins spending considerable time there with him. While his parents are at first unimpressed with Eleanor, they are aware of her family situation and, over time, come to like her.
Ultimately, Eleanor's home life becomes intolerable as Richie concentrates his abuse on her. When she expresses a desire to escape to the house of an uncle in St. Paul, Minnesota, Park offers to drive her there in the second-hand Impala he acquired after obtaining his driver's license. Park's father, Jamie, catches him leaving on his mission and, rather than discouraging him, gives his son money and his truck to make the journey. Park safely delivers Eleanor. Afterward, missing her desperately, he writes her often and sends her mixtapes of his favorite bands. For months, she does not reply, then one day sends him a postcard containing just three little words.
As the author has noted in interviews, the core of Eleanor & Park is largely autobiographical. Rainbow Rowell grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, was a teenager during the 1980s and had an abusive stepfather. While many writers use episodes from their past in fictional works, it takes real skill to transcend the mere recording of history in the process of creating art. Rowell has managed to take the painful memories of her youth and build them into a young adult novel that tenderly captures all the uncertainties and wonders of first love as experienced by two misfits. The halting growth and increasing intensity of the relationship between Eleanor and Park—with all its doubts, self-examinations, and setbacks—feels real. The structure of the novel, which begins with chapters labeled solely “Park” or “Eleanor,” then shifts to chapters with multiple Park/Eleanor viewpoint divisions, reflects the changing emotions of the characters. Park's sacrifice at the end illustrates a maturity beyond the character's years: sometimes, true love means letting go.
Keeping the setting of the novel in the 1980s rather than updating it to a more modern era is an inspired choice. The less sophisticated time period gives the two main characters the opportunity to begin bonding over nonthreatening topics like comics, music, and television shows without such distractions as the Internet or cell phones.
The contrasts between the families of the protagonists adds conflict to the story by placing believable obstacles in the path of the romance. Though she is tall and beautiful, Eleanor's mother, Sabrina, is in an abusive relationship with her mean-spirited second husband. She does not stand up for her daughter against him or do anything to improve the family's circumstances. Meanwhile, Park's mother, known as Mindy, has fully adapted to an ambitious American lifestyle; she sells Avon products and runs a successful hair and nail salon in a converted garage at the Sheridan home. It is Mindy's growing affection for Eleanor—she gives her son's girlfriend a makeover—that drives the final wedge between the teenager and her stepfather, and forces her to flee to Minnesota for her own safety.
- Green, John. “Two against the World.” Rev. of Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. New York Times. New York Times, 8 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/books/review/eleanor-park-by-rainbow-rowell.html?_r=0>.
- Ritter, Cynthia K. Rev. of Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. Horn Book Magazine 89.3 (2013): 93–94. Literary Reference Center. Web. 2 Nov. 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=87024840&site=lrc-live>.
- Rowell, Rainbow. “One Thing Leads to Another.” Interview by Julie Bartel. Hub. YALSA, 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2014/02/27/one-thing-leads-to-another-an-interview-with-rainbow-rowell>.