Eleanor & Park is told as a series of very short vignettes alternating the points of view of Eleanor, a fat, redheaded, awkward teenaged girl who lives with four siblings and an abusive, alcoholic, snake-mean stepfather; and Park, a biracial Korean-American kid who uses his love of alternative music and comics to shut out the taunting bullies in his school.
They are thrown together when Eleanor moves back in with her mother and stepfather, and faces naked hostility as she boards the schoolbus for the first time. Park takes mercy on her and makes room for her, and the two ride in silence, day after day, as seatmates.
As romance blossoms for Eleanor and Park, the terrifying abuse in Eleanor's home also ramps up, with palpable danger not just for Eleanor, but for her beloved (but fatally compromised) mother, and her small, vulnerable siblings.
Rowell's romance writing is second to none — her characters are flawed, lovable, and superbly drawn, and their attraction to one another is simultaneously intense and chaste. The eros and agape of Park and Eleanor's first time holding hands is so deftly handled that it practically scorches the page.
Against that gorgeous romance is the mounting, stark terror of Eleanor's homelife, and the monster who she lives with in the most claustrophobic quarters imaginable (the family bathroom is off the kitchen and has no door; Eleanor rushes home to bathe before her stepfather gets home and parks himself in front of the TV with a view of the tub). That terror is all the more gripping for Rowell's depictions of the redeeming qualities of Eleanor's mother, and Eleanor's recollections of better times as a family.
The frequent challenges to this book in schools and libraries are hard to understand. Though this is a book with a lot of cursing in it, it is almost entirely directed at the protagonists, who deplore it as vulgar and mean. Though this is a book shot through with romance, there is virtually no sex in it.
What it does have is teenagers living difficult — and even violent — lives, surrounded by adults who are at best ineffectual and at worst part of the problem. What's more, the problem grownups in this book are all disciplinarians who think kids need tough love to grow up right, and who are manifestly, demonstrably wrong. It's almost as though the adults who object to this book are ashamed to see their own attitudes rebutted so forcefully, and then seize on the pretext of "bad language" to object to it. But that couldn't possibly be right, right?
Eleanor is fat — big boned, too, but also, actually, fat. She lives in an agony of body-shame over this (the kids in her school don't help, and neither do the grownups). But she is also beautiful, something that Park sees and burns with, and which he slowly, slowly begins to convince Eleanor of — even as the clock is ticking down to her stepfather's discovery of their relationship and his no-doubt violent, destructive result.
This combination of factors — a biracial protagonist, a fat protagonist, an interracial romance, bullying, body shame, domestic abuse — means that this book speaks to young readers (and 45 year old dudes like me) in profound ways. At the NCAC banquet, the organizers showed a reel of kids from all over the world discussing the ways that the book had helped them grapple with their own struggles (the NCAC has an admirable project doing this for lots of challenged YA books, and you can read what some of Rowell's readers said for yourself).
When that video ended, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. CEOs of giant publishing conglomerates, hard-fighting civil liberties lawyers, teachers, writers — every one of us misted up with that palpable demonstration of how literature — challenging, tough-minded, beautiful literature — can change young peoples' lives.
Read for yourself, and you'll understand why.
Eleanor & Park [Rainbow Rowell/St Martin's Griffin]