Genre: YA contemporary
Summary: It’s the 1980s. Eleanor is the new girl. She’s a chubby red head with a flamboyant style. Park is not new, but he occupies a shaky place in the pecking order of popularity because he’s half-Korean. His status as a social outcast hangs by a thread. Nonetheless, he shares his seat on the bus with the awkward new girl when no one else will. What buds is that first-ever romance we all remember from our own early years. It starts with music and quickly expands. But Eleanor cannot love Park as openly as she wants to. Her step-dad is abusive and controlling. He has spent most of her adolescence warping her ideas of affection. As a result, Eleanor repeats the cycle of fear, insecurity, abuse, apology, back to fear. If she cannot learn to love, she’ll ruin the best thing she’s ever known: Park.
Critique: The point of view alternates between Eleanor and Park. Sometimes this creates rapid-fire exchanges during the tensest or most romantically climactic moments. The reader gets a mix of diverging perceptions and coalescing emotions. If you’ve left adolescence, Rowell will rekindle for your all the feelings and physiological experiences of first love. If you’re still caught in the teeth of growing up, her book serves as a realistic road map. Either way, Rowell avoids all the clichés that usually haunt this category of teen fiction. No hearts throbbing or cheeks flushing here. Instead, bones melt, chests fold inside out. And the intensity flares from the simple firsts (not just sex): nudging fingers, holding hands, staring into another’s eyes for the first time with intensity. Where Rowell really shines is with Eleanor’s story of domestic abuse. Rowell paints the delicate lines of mental violence inflicted by Eleanor’s step-dad, Richie. She portrays the mom not as an idiot for staying, but as an intelligent woman with a broken spirit. For those who’ve known this existence, the book will prove hard to read. It will dance too close to home, but I urge you to reach the end, to seek the hope hiding in the smallest gestures and treasures.