When the book opens, we learn right away that our narrator, Park, has lost someone named Eleanor. Since this book is set in the mid-1980s, in true 80s cassette-tape style, we rewind to the beginning of the school year to find out what happened.
Park Sheridan, a half-Korean high school kid in the very Caucasian city of Omaha, Nebraska, feels like an outsider in lots of ways: He's obsessed with music, he loves comic books, and he doesn't have a ton of friends. But when he sees Eleanor Douglas get on the bus one morning, he knows he's not as much of an outsider as she is.
Chubby, with bright red hair and a habit of dressing in men's clothing, Eleanor's mere existence is like a glowing neon sign for the bullies in their high school. Park knows immediately that the popular kids on the bus will eat her for lunch, so he silently offers her a seat. What happens next is a slow, dawning realization that the two of them have a connection unlike anything they've ever had with anyone else.
As Eleanor and Park share silent bus rides, we learn more about each of them, the narrative alternating between the two characters. They come from drastically different backgrounds. Eleanor lives in poverty in a tiny house, sharing a room with her four younger siblings. Eleanor's recently returned from a year away from home, living with distant family friends after being kicked out of the house by her violent stepfather. Richie, an alcoholic who abuses Eleanor's mother, is such a threat that Eleanor and her siblings live in fear of even being in the same room with him.
Although Park's home life seems heavenly compared to Eleanor's—he comes from a stable, happy family—Park is constantly aware that his interests set him apart from his sports-loving father and younger brother, and he's not sure if his dad really accepts him.
As Eleanor begins to read Park's comic books over his shoulder on the bus, the two of them totally click. Eventually, mix tapes are swapped, sparks fly, and soon they're inseparable, living for the minutes they spend together on the bus. When they finally reach out to hold hands, you'd never imagine handholding could be so incredible.
Although romance is blooming with Park, Eleanor has to cope with some difficult obstacles at school and at home. She's relentlessly bullied by her classmates, who call her "Big Red" and invent evil ways to make her life miserable; an anonymous bully even writes obscene messages on her textbooks. At home, Eleanor tries to make herself invisible, hoping Richie won't notice her, and listens to him abuse her mother at night.
Eleanor finds refuge at Park's house after school, although Park's parents are initially a little freaked out by Eleanor's unconventional appearance (and their son's clear affection for her). Park's Korean mom, a beautician, has a particularly hard time accepting Eleanor. But once she gets a glimpse of Eleanor's family, she realizes she can relate to Eleanor—she also grew up in poverty with a bunch of siblings. From then on, Park's parents are incredibly supportive, inviting Eleanor to dinner every night and accepting her as Park's girlfriend—which, by now, she is.
But we all know this story's about star-crossed lovers, and as Eleanor and Park fall more deeply in love, we start to feel like the other shoe's about to drop. They have almost no way to spend time alone, afraid of what might happen if Richie finds out about Park. Finally, after a blissful first (and only) night out together, Eleanor comes home to the unmistakable signs that Richie's discovered her secret. Even worse, she realizes that Richie's the one who's been writing obscene messages on her textbooks all year. Yikes.
Terrified that Richie's out to kill her—or worse—Eleanor takes off, knowing she can never go home again. Supported by his awesome, understanding parents, Park borrows the family truck and drives Eleanor from Omaha all the way to her uncle's house in Minnesota.
After a heartbreaking all-night drive, Park leaves Eleanor at her uncle's house and they say goodbye, though thankfully not Romeo-and-Juliet style. For these two, though, parting is definitely more sorrowful than sweet.
Though Park writes tons of letters, Eleanor can't bring herself to get in touch. Safe at her uncle's house, Eleanor starts a new life, but she's heartbroken over Park's absence. After six months of painful radio silence from Eleanor, Park finally gets a postcard in the mail. Eleanor's written three words on it, and we get to guess what they are.