You Are What You Read: Eleanor and Park


Joseph Higgins look back on this YA classic and the nostalgia it brings for being young and in love

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Image by Orion Publishing Co, 2014

By Joseph Higgins

Eleanor and Park is ostensibly a typical YA, romance novel. It might not quite be the same high-brow or emotionally impactful book that has previously featured in this series, but like my friends who have written before me, I have chosen the book that I feel has most influenced the person I have become today, and honestly, there’s a reason I said ‘ostensibly’.

To understand quite the level of teen fiction we’re dealing with here, my edition of this book includes a quote from famed YA author John Green on the cover, claiming in so many words that it instils a great sense of nostalgia in him for being young and feeling in love. As cliché as it sounds, this book does much the same for me.

Eleanor and Park follows two American high schoolers in 1980s Omaha, Nebraska, both of whom are conveniently named in the title, just in case you forget them. Eleanor Douglas has a challenging home life and sticks out like a sore thumb in middle America, with bright red hair and an odd dress sense, brought about by various patchwork repair jobs and the relative poverty her family are forced to exist in. Park Sheridan has a marginally better lot, as his father is well off and respected because of his military service in Vietnam, but is forced to deal with the discrimination that comes with being mixed-race in a racist society.

Describing the details of the plot from there would step dangerously close to spoiler territory and I am also certain any description I gave of it would come across sounding overly dramatic or like I’m simply describing a generic love story, but truthfully this book is so much more than that. Every young adult romance book has struggles that the characters have to overcome, but none of them, in my experience, are presented as quite so raw and real as they are in this book, to the point where the ending is left ambiguous as to whether it’s optimistic or pessimistic.

Certainly, it is not ‘happy’ but it’s also not typically sad either. Like the oft-derided The Fault in Our Stars, Eleanor and Park floats in the middle ground, and in my re-reading of the book to write this article I actually took away an entirely different message from the story than I did the first time I read it in my formative teenage years.

It might be because my partner is the one who first recommended the book to me but, on my first reading, I devoured it in a single evening. Of course, I pretended it had taken me a few days longer so as to keep talking about it with her. Those feelings and those memories of being awake at four AM talking without having downed half the stock of booze in Flares as fuel to keep me going are what this book takes me back to. Back when discussing what the future held was so innocent and optimistic, not that the future can’t be optimistic now, but it was much easier to say “things will get better” when I was a child at least.

So, I recommend Eleanor and Park, during these difficult times if you just want a bittersweet reminder of what it was like to be young and in love, or if you want to remember all of the struggles and adversity that have led you to where you are now. Either way, this book has that raw emotion laced into every page and honestly, I can’t think of a book that more defined my worldview than this one.