Eleanor, highly introverted and bullied for being overweight, begins an unusual friendship with Park, a fellow student she rides the bus with. The story is told in dual POV, and we see both characters' initial aversion to each other, and their subsequent fascination. Park defends Eleanor one day, and his friends immediately give him a hard time. This causes Park to both loathe and become curious about Eleanor. On the bus, Eleanor peeks over Park's shoulder to read his comics. Over time, she realizes he's turning the pages slower, so she can catch up.
Park is one of the only Asian kids in their area and school, and he identifies with feeling different, as a sort of misfit. The story isn't chiefly about Park being Asian, but his heritage lends a strong subtext to what it's like to be "other" in a predominately white culture (additionally, this story is set in the 1980s). His friendship with Eleanor is tentative, crafted by the comics and Park sharing a mixtape. He even provides extra batteries for Eleanor so she doesn't run out of juice on her stereo.
Their slowly evolving friendship feels so genuine given how some chapters are only a handful of lines, just snippets of dialogue or narrative to reflect intense emotional shifts, both funny and not. Eleanor is painfully shy, to the point she often sabotages her interactions with Park. She is a difficult character, and at least for me, not easily relatable, which is exactly what drew me into the book. She is compelling, and not at all like any character I've read in YA.
This book also explores poverty and abuse. Eleanor and her siblings live with their mom and an abusive stepfather. The emotional abuse and manipulation is heartbreaking, as is Eleanor's mother's enabling of their situation, and her attempt to pretend life is normal. Eleanor's mother sneaks money to buy her kids thrift store clothes, and must lie about buying regular ingredients for cooking while the stepfather eats his own take-out while he's at work. Their poverty is hidden beneath a mask of a middle class neighborhood. Her family situation is revealed with as much reserve as other elements of the story, in turn drawing a great amount of sympathy for a character as difficult as Eleanor. We see why she isolates herself from hurt, and why she doesn't value herself. Park's consistent respectful treatment of Eleanor sends her on the defensive because she isn't used to be being shown kindness without condition.
The resolution of Eleanor and Park is bittersweet--mostly sweet, though the usual Happily Ever After. Which was perfect. This reads more as a snapshot in time for Eleanor and Park. Not their beginning or their end.