I have a general rule about reading teen lit: with few exceptions, I don’t read it. As someone in her thirties who spends almost zero time around teenagers, I have a really hard time relating to teenaged protagonists. The way the characters almost always find a significant other, regardless of what is happening.

For example, The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. The protagonist is trying to rescue her brother from scary aliens who are taking over the planet, which should be plenty to deal with, but she also has to fall in love with a random stranger who rescues her in the woods. Granted, I had just had a baby when I read this one, and my attitude toward the main character was no doubt influenced by the waves of maternal hormones flooding my brain, but seriously. You’re trying to rescue what may be the only surviving member of your family from an enemy that is indiscernible from a human, and you’re going to fall for a guy who may or may not be human and could very likely double-cross you? I don’t think so, girl. I’ll watch the movie on Blu-Ray, but I’ll probably hold a grudge against the actress who plays Cassie for a while.

The few exceptions I make are for the “crossover” books, such as The Hunger Games trilogy (yes, there is a love triangle, but Katniss resists playing along with it until it proves useful – and even then, she’s gaming it only to get back to the family that needs her) and a couple of authors who write teenaged characters capable of thinking about important things outside of their hormones. One of those is Marissa Meyer (author of The Lunar Chronicles), and another one is Rainbow Rowell, who also writes for adults. Eleanor and Park (St. Martin’s Griffin, 18.99 USD) is the third book I have read by Rowell and the first I’ve read by her that features bona fide teenagers in high school. It did not disappoint.

Eleanor has not had an easy life. She has recently moved back in with her mom after staying with a friend of her mother for some time, due to her stepfather kicking her out. While she was gone, her younger siblings have gone from hating their stepfather along with her to quietly accepting (or even worshiping) him. They are young enough to not remember a life before their stepfather and his temper that has such a hair trigger that Eleanor’s mother has the children eat dinner well before their stepfather comes home and then go outside until dark so that they will not set him off with a little noise. To avoid getting kicked out again, Eleanor quietly avoids him, staying in the room all five children share unless she is in school. She loves music and owns a Walkman, but she does not have batteries for it, so her life is mostly devoid of music. She loves books, but she only has a few secondhand paperbacks that she reads over and over again. Her creative outlet is the unique combinations of her thrift store clothes that she cobbles together as a form of self-expression. She doesn’t even have to ask her mom to know that she isn’t allowed to date anyone – her stepfather would kick her out again.

Park is half-Asian (unlike everyone else in their town except his mother, who is Korean), but on the surface, that is the only thing that sets him apart from every other 16-year-old in 1986 Omaha. He keeps his head down and avoids drawing attention to himself. A years-ago, middle school relationship with the most popular girl in his class helps him avoid the cruel ridicule that all high school kids experience (save those at the top of the food chain), and he intends to keep it that way. Park has studied martial arts since childhood (thanks to his white father), listens to alternative music, and reads comic books on the bus, but none of these things are considered cool, so he doesn’t advertise them. When Eleanor steps onto Park’s bus for the first time, he (very) reluctantly lets her sit with him to end the uneasy situation of a curvy new girl with wild red hair standing in the aisle with her unique wardrobe selection on full display – and thus their unlikely romance begins with Eleanor reading Park’s comic books over his shoulder. It is days before they have a conversation – Park silently gives her comic books to take home and read – and weeks before they hold hands, let alone kiss. But the development of their relationship is so expertly plotted and paced that the accidental brush of their hands is as gratifying to the reader as a trip to third base. But the knowledge that their romance is doomed from the start looms over each declaration and act of love.

I’ve turned it over in my head for a couple weeks to try and figure out what about this fictional relationship makes it so real. This book is labeled as being for young adults, but a quick skim of reviews on Amazon.com will show you that the themes are universally appealing – there is at least one reviewer who confesses to being 70 years old and loving it. I think I finally understand why. The best relationships (platonic or otherwise) do several things for us. For one, they introduce us to new things. Eleanor learns about makeup (Park’s mother is a beautician), having a father figure who gives a crap, comics, music from the current decade, and simply having a stable life – mostly things that either are material or depend on material things – things that Eleanor’s underprivileged life preclude.

Park’s education in Eleanor’s world is far more abstract. Eleanor has nothing, but in her life of poverty, her creativity has blossomed. So has her ability to not care what people think. She loves to read, but she only owns a handful of books that she reads over and over again, and she shares one of them – The Catcher in the Rye – with Park as a Christmas present. Park receives her dime store novel as if it a precious artifact – and it is. Park learns to stop caring what the cool kids on the bus – who have given him a “pass,” despite being a comic book geek – think about him. Before Eleanor, he kept his head down and didn’t call attention to himself for fear of being ridiculed. This is how the majority of teenagers survive high school. But Eleanor will tone herself down for no one. She could just wear her men’s shirts and whatever threadbare pants she has and “pass” as normal. But instead, she ties on multiple scarves, pins random items to her shirts, and lets her most prominent feature – her hair – do as it pleases. She dresses for no one but herself. She stares daggers at anyone who would consider ridiculing her. Eleanor has so many more significant things to worry about than social acceptance that she is the most confident girl in school – despite having virtually none of the features that the average teenager would consider worthy of confidence. Eleanor is self-conscious about her not-thin body, but that worry is at the very bottom of a very long list of concerns.

The best relationships, like the one Eleanor and Park have, also make us comfortable with who we are – which, in turn, can make other people comfortable with who we are. Park’s mother has always used her son as a model for practicing makeup techniques. Park is not a stranger to wearing eyeshadow or eyeliner, and when his mother decides to give Eleanor a makeover, Park plays around too and decides that he likes wearing eyeliner, while Eleanor decides that makeup is not for her. These preferences, despite falling on opposite sides of “established” gender roles, are accepted not only within their relationship, but, eventually, by Park’s mother and father (who had their own prejudices to overcome). Being together makes both Eleanor and Park better people, and being around them makes people outside their relationship better as well. Park’s father accepts his son’s “softer” side while finally understanding that his son is anything but a sissy (though it takes an incredible martial arts display that gives Park’s friend a broken nose and lands Park in suspension). Park’s mother better understands herself after acknowledging that any hesitation she had in embracing Eleanor in her son’s life stemmed from wanting to forget her own difficult early life in Korea. Yes, their relationship is doomed, and any immediate solution to Eleanor’s increasingly dangerous home life lies in a permanent separation from Park, but while it lasts, the impact of their love blossoms far beyond their own lives and ultimately leaves their piece of the world a better place – as all epic love stories ultimately do.

Review as a parent:

I don’t have a teenager, and I have a hard time putting myself in the mindset of someone who does. Yes, there is some offensive language in this book, but I can’t imagine it isn’t something that the average 14-year-old won’t hear in the halls of any junior high school, and it is almost exclusively used to characterize certain bad elements in this book. However, I like to think that once I do have a teenager, I will shy away from censorship for censorship’s sake and instead view my children’s literature choices somewhat like a doctor considers medicinal options for a patient: will it do more good than harm? The themes in this book – acceptance of the “other,” looking for love in unlikely places, standing up for one’s beliefs, and (perhaps most importantly) there are things in this world that are so more important than worrying about what peers who are just as clueless as you are think of you – are absolutely things I would want my child to be exposed to. So, in the interest of raising children who make the world better for other people, who stop to consider what the “weird” kid might have going on at home and will go out of their way just to be nice,I would absolutely encourage my young teenager to read this book, even though it has the c-word in it. Context and content make any foul language both necessary for characterization and irrelevant in the big picture. There are big ideas in this book, and I think teenagers are far more capable than we sometimes acknowledge of thinking about them. Had this book been around when I was a teenager, I almost certainly would have been a slightly better person for having read it – just as I am now, as an adult.