Most teen romance novels are complete fantasy. And that’s OK. Who doesn’t love a good fantasy once in a while? Especially when the alternative is the sweaty, awkward, or even nonexistent reality that most of us endured in high school. But Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park manages to use the standard romance format to tell a high school romance story that is realistic, in all its cringe-inducing glory, while still managing to be swoon-worthy.
Like many romance protagonists before them, Eleanor and Park do not like each other when they first meet. But in this case, it is for completely mundane high school reasons. He is embarrassed by her weird clothes and awkwardness, and she is annoyed that even though he let her sit next to him on the bus when no one else would, he was rude about it. But, like all those other romance characters, they are repeatedly thrown together despite their dislike. Again, this is for a very high school reason; once you find your seat on the bus, you don’t change it. This is an unspoken rule but very powerful. And bus seatmates leads to mutual comic reading, mix tape swapping, conversation, and, eventually, love.
Along the romantic journey, the narrative swaps close third-person perspectives between Park and Eleanor, but the writing breathes with so much life and voice that it feels like the first person. As Park struggles to understand his powerful feelings for Eleanor, and Eleanor struggles to feel safe enough with him to reciprocate, this immediacy stirs echoes of their emotions in any reader who remembers the gut-churning agony and ecstasy of falling in love for the first time.
Bonus: author Rainbow Rowell has Eleanor and Park–inspired playlists on Spotify!