Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013), narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
The two did not fall in insta-love. They begin by tolerating each other, then by sharing comics and music and, eventually, friendship. Quickly that turns to romance and they become devoted to each other. But there are complications. Eleanor lives in a very troubled household with her meek mother, abusive stepfather, and several younger siblings with whom she shares a bedroom. She lacks a lot of things that are basic to most teenage girls: a phone, washing machine, privacy for bathing, a toothbrush. Batteries for her walkman. Permission to have a boyfriend.
Park lives with his parents and younger brother. Their household is pretty stable, though not perfect. Park never quite lives up to the expectations of his father, a veteran who expects his son to be more manly than he has turned out so far. Park's mother runs a beauty salon out of the house and is fiercely protective of Park.
Eleanor was one of the most genuine and likable characters I've come across. She is fat, pale, and redheaded, quickly dubbed Big Red by her peers. She has a believable level of self-esteem, enough to get by but not much more than that. She writes lyrics from songs she's never heard on her book covers because it's music she wants to hear but doesn't have access to. (Oh, how I remember that from the 80s! The options were radio or buying cassettes and if you weren't near a decent radio station and had no money to buy cassettes you were screwed. I feel your pain, Eleanor!) She is wonderfully clever. In describing a mean girl from school she says, "She's what would happen if the devil married the Wicked Witch and they rolled their baby in a bowl of chopped evil." When Park asks why she likes him so much, one of her reasons is "You look like a protagonist."
And Park? I mostly liked Park because of how much he appreciated Eleanor. Knowing some teenage boys in my time, I was doubtful of his acceptance of this outlier. But he has his own problems with self-acceptance. He is, after all, the only Asian kid in their part of Nebraska. (His younger brother takes after their white father.) He is also unfortunately pretty. Park is convinced that nobody outside of Asia finds Asian guys hot. His many moments of charming awkwardness frequently included inadvertently insulting Eleanor when trying to complement her. "She should smile like that all the time," Park thought. "It made her face cross over from weird to beautiful."
Eleanor and Park had the perfect kind of sweet high school romance that made me super nostalgic for something I never had. I mean, who really had that kind of romance in high school? But we all wanted to. It was sweet without being saccharine, innocent without being too innocent and, like all good romances, doomed. (Which you learn in the very first paragraph of the novel.)
The only thing that could make this book any better is being read well, and the audiobook definitely delivered. My new favorite narrator Rebecca Lowman (of Rules of Civility) read Eleanor's chapters, while Park's were narrated by Sunil Malhotra, who I would happily listen to again. Both readers made the sweet parts sweeter and the clever parts funnier.
I'm so happy that Eleanor and Park is the big popular YA book this year (so far!). I love dystopias, but sometimes you need some real kids in the real world, having themselves a little romance. Rainbow Rowell is understandably being compared to John Green, and I'm very happy to learn that this is actually her second book, and she has a third coming out this fall. Also? Super bonus: Eleanor and Park has playlists.