Brief Background: Eleanor is a new transfer student into the classic American high school in the 1980s. She's got unfashionable clothes, wild hair and a dreamy nature which leads to her being picked on by the popular girls. But Eleanor has more to worry about - her step-father who hates her, her three brothers and sister who live with her in inhabitable proximity and the constant ebb and flow of poverty which makes her life difficult. Then she meets Park - part ethnic Korean and unfortunately short, Park wishes to get through school life quietly and unnoticed by his loudmouth next door neighbour and the popular kids. Reading comics on the bus is his escape, a time to be by himself and relax. Until Eleanor sits next to him on her first day, and then slowly, things change for both of them.
Things I Liked:
Park: Park's character development and way of life was immaculately built and sustained by Rainbow Rowell. I found it easy to be sympathetic to his character, and felt adequately exposed to his life experiences to be able to relate to his teenage moodiness, longing and reclusive nature. From his Korean mother to his strict father, Park's life in all aspects seems normal(ish), but from his experiences we see a great desire to be different from the person he is - taller like his brother, more confident, and ultimately, less insecure about Eleanor's situation. Despite not necessarily being an exciting character, Park was a reliable and consistent point of reference throughout the novel.
Depictions of Young Love: The unreliable and ultimately incomprehensible nature of Park and Eleanor's feelings toward each other may not necessarily be entirely believable (in terms of how quickly the "I love you" pops up or the drastic change between derision and attraction), but in some ways, first love never is. I think that's what Rowell is trying to get at here - perhaps as adults it is difficult to understand that very fine line in teenagehood. Relating back to my own experiences, the courting process is definitely worlds away from the school-yard romances of youth, and I think as a younger person I probably would have found Park and Eleanor to be acting far more reasonably, than I did now. However, I do understand what the author is trying to do here - yes, it may not be logical, but I don't think many experiences of first, heart-achingly real love are.
Pop Culture References: Relevant to the 1980s and strongly laced through the narrative, these gave some embellishment to the story. From the Smiths to Walkmans, it was never an issue forgetting the time period in which this book was set.
What I Didn't Like
The Hype: This book was massively overhyped for what it is, and I think that's why I under-appreciated it when I actually got around to reading it. Many portray this novel as a revolutionary, break-your-heart-into-a-million-pieces romance. It really doesn't stray too far from the classic, contemporary YA romance in reality. Social stigma and pressure are common themes in many of the aforementioned novels, and it's no different here. Perhaps if it hadn't been so overhyped I may have enjoyed it more, which is a shame.
Domestic Violence/Romance: The entwining of Eleanor's home life with her romantic life was a little bit...off putting for me. It's not that I can't read scenes of domestic violence, in fact, I think these are very informational and important to include in a book whose themes are riddled with alcoholism and an unstable family life, but I didn't appreciate how Rowell used this to make Eleanor and Park's relationship as one of "forbidden love." In some ways, I think it would have been far more effective to deal with Eleanor's living situation as a living situation and a family situation, more than simply something which would ultimately serve to divide the lovers. I wanted to see the implications of Eleanor's departure on her family, particularly her siblings, and I think Rowell really rejected them here, instead focusing on the love story.
Overall, I think Eleanor and Park were well rounded characters, and the story was pretty well entertaining. However, I think a lot more could have been done with certain themes in the book, and I was left disappointed that these were not really resolved.