Eleanor & Park
This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine
This coming-of-age fiction book by Rainbow Rowell is published by Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, which is a division of Macmillan Publishers. Eleanor & Park is written for kids ages 13 to 18.
The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
In the 1980s, Eleanor Douglas isn't just the new girl on the bus. She's the new girl who is readjusting to life at home with her impoverished family — trying to evade the notice of her abusive stepfather and struggling with body-image issues. Steve, Tina and the rest of the kids at the back of the bus don't let Eleanor sit down. In a fleeting moment of pity, Park reluctantly allows her to share his seat.
At first, Park is appalled by Eleanor's loud taste in clothing and wonders why she doesn't try harder to blend in. Eleanor mentally refers to Park as "the stupid Asian kid" because Park is half Korean. They sit beside each other every day without speaking. When Park realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder, he opens them wider and checks to make sure she's finished reading before he turns the page. Then, still without talking, he begins loaning them to her, whole stacks at a time.
One morning when Park oversleeps and forgets to bring the comics, they talk about music. He makes her a tape of some of his favorite songs, and when Eleanor admits she has no way of listening to it, he lets her use his Walkman on the bus and loans her batteries so she can listen at home.
Riding the bus with Park becomes the one bright spot in Eleanor's day. At school she has two girlfriends but is otherwise teased and bullied. Someone keeps writing sexual one-liners on her schoolbooks, and she returns to her locker after gym class one day to find it covered in maxi pads. Park tries to visit Eleanor at home to give her a comic book, but this gets Eleanor in trouble with her mom and her stepfather, Richie, and she is forbidden to see Park (or any other boy). She continues to avoid Richie as much as possible, a difficult task in a house with no bathroom door and a single bedroom that Eleanor shares with her four younger siblings.
Park keeps mixing tapes for Eleanor, and the two begin holding hands on the bus. When Eleanor baby-sits one night for her biological father, she takes advantage of having access to a phone and calls Park. He tells her he loves her, but Eleanor never replies because her dad and his fiancée arrive home.
Eleanor finally takes Park up on his offer to go to his house after school but is nervous around his picture-perfect family. Steve and his friends make fun of Eleanor on the bus, so Park fights him and gets grounded by his parents. At Eleanor's house, tensions between Richie and Eleanor escalate when Eleanor uses a neighbor's phone to call the police because she heard gunshots.
Eleanor and Park get into an argument before Christmas vacation, and they don't see each other until Christmas Eve, when they sneak out at night to apologize and share kisses until the cold drives them back to their respective homes. On Christmas day, a drunken Richie throws a fit because there is no pumpkin pie. He drives away, leaving Eleanor's family to salvage rice pudding off the floor for dessert.
While Park's home life is much simpler by comparison, it is by no means perfect. His mother is polite but doesn't understand what he sees in Eleanor, and his father is angry with him for not learning how to drive vehicles with a standard transmission. The two have never been close, as Park's younger brother, Josh, comes much closer to their father's athletic, all-American ideal of a perfect son. Their relationship only worsens when Park begins wearing black eyeliner and messy hair to school.
When Eleanor's siblings learn that Eleanor has a boyfriend, she knows it's only a matter of time before her mom and Richie find out. One day after gym class, Eleanor finds her clothing thrown into the toilet. She is forced to walk down the hallway wearing her too-tight gym suit and carrying her sopping clothes. Park sees her. Eleanor is embarrassed, but Park is very attracted to her. Later, when his family is away at a boat show, the two make out on Park's couch. Later, they go on a date and make out in the back seat of the car.
After this date, Eleanor finds that Richie has destroyed all of her possessions and has left her a threatening note. She realizes from the handwriting that he is the one who has been writing all the sexual notes on her school books. She escapes through her bedroom window and flees into the night. Richie follows her in his pickup truck.
Unsure of where to go, Eleanor finds unlikely allies in Tina and Steve, the kids from the back of the bus. They hide her in Steve's garage until they can deliver her safely to Park's house. Park asks his parents' permission to drive Eleanor to her aunt and uncle's house in Minnesota, where she will be safe. Park's father agrees and even gives him gas money for the trip but stipulates that he has to drive the standard truck instead of the automatic car. Park agrees and drives for several hours. Then he pulls onto a country road to get some sleep.
When Eleanor and Park wake up, they start making out. Eleanor wants to go all the way. But Park tells Eleanor that they have to stop. He needs to believe that this won't be their last chance. When Park finally delivers Eleanor to her relatives' house in St. Paul, she tells him to leave without coming in. They kiss goodbye. Park tells her he loves her and asks her to promise to call him that night. But Eleanor doesn't call. He writes every day, but she never writes back. A year goes by. The rest of Eleanor's family, without Richie, moves away, and Park gives up expecting to hear from Eleanor. Then one day, a postcard arrives from Eleanor, but the book doesn't clearly state what it says other than that the message is three words.
Eleanor wonders why Jesus doesn't seem to be on her side. Eleanor's family used to go to church but stopped. Eleanor compares Steve to the Nephilim because of his size. She likens Tina and Richie to demons.
Other Belief Systems
Eleanor's bus is number 666. She refers to the students on her bus as children of hell and devil kids.
Profanity is frequent and varied, and includes the following terms: a--, b--tard, b--ch, c--t, d--n, d--k, fag, the f-word, h---, h---spawn, p---, p---y, s--- and the f-word with mother. The names Jesus and God (sometimes paired with d--n) are misused. Racial slurs and other coarse language are also used.
Park fights Steve after he and Tina mock Eleanor on the bus. He kicks Steve in the face, sending him to the hospital. Park's face is badly bruised as well.
Eleanor and her siblings imagine violent ends for Richie. Richie fires his gun at some teens, trying to scare them. Richie is violent, unstable and verbally abusive. He throws heavy objects at the wall, abuses Eleanor's mother, writes sexually explicit notes in Eleanor's schoolbooks, and threatens and attempts to physically harm Eleanor.
Steve offers to kill Richie and says that he plans to kill Tina's stepfather one day. After Eleanor is safely in Minnesota and her mother and siblings have moved away, Park confronts Richie, who in a drunken stupor has fallen to the ground. Park wants to kill him, but just kicks dirt into his mouth instead.
Eleanor and Park's relationship becomes increasingly physical. Handholding progresses to kissing and then kissing deeply. They begin lying on top of one another while caressing each other under their clothes, and eventually removing layers of clothing. They stop just short of intercourse because Park refuses. He doesn't have a condom. These scenes are written in a detailed, emotionally charged way.
Park remembers kissing girls when he was younger but not feeling anything and wondering if he was gay (although he didn't want to kiss boys either). His parents ask him if he's wearing eyeliner because he wants to be like a girl, but Park insists that he just wants to be himself. He kisses another girl after a year of not hearing from Eleanor.
Richie writes sexually explicit, anonymous remarks in Eleanor's school books. He calls Eleanor a "b--ch in heat" and leers at her after Park shows up at her house to lend her a comic book. Eleanor feels that part of the reason her relationship with Park became physical so quickly is because she is not allowed to have normal relationships with boys. Eleanor and her siblings can hear bedsprings squeaking when Richie and her mother have sex. Richie leaves bruises and a hickey on her mother's face and neck.
Park's father kisses Park's mother deeply, and the couple regularly engages in suggestive banter with one another. He gives Park and his brother, Josh, the sex education talk when Park is in fifth grade, then limits his involvement in his son's love life to telling Park not to get anyone pregnant. Park's father has a collection of Playboy magazines that Park looked at before meeting Eleanor, who has strong feelings against pornography and prostitution.
Eleanor often wears men's clothing. Teens make sexually suggestive remarks about other characters.
Substance Use and Abuse: Peripheral characters smoke. Both Eleanor's biological father and Rickie smoke marijuana, as do some teen characters. Park is offered a joint but declines. Richie abuses alcohol and drives drunk. Secondary characters drink socially, sometimes to excess.
Lying: Eleanor lies to her mother about going to Park's house after school, saying that she is visiting a girlfriend's house instead.
Pop Culture References: Eleanor & Park is set in the 1980s and is littered with pop culture references. Among others, bands referred to include the Sex Pistols, the Beatles, Skinny Puppy, Misfits, XTC, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, Joy Division, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Canned Heat, U2 and AC/DC. Park is an avid comic book reader and counts the following among his collection: X-Men, Watchmen, Rom and Swamp Thing. TV shows and movies that are named include “General Hospital,” “Miami Vice,” “Sixty Minutes,” “Fraggle Rock,” “Dr. Who,” “The Waltons,” “Matlock,” Chariots of Fire and Star Wars. Judy Blume books are also mentioned.
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Readability Age Range
13 to 18
Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, which is a division of Macmillan Publishers.
YALSA Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book, 2014