Although Eleanor and Park connect as fellow misfits, their families are worlds apart. Eleanor & Park gives us vivid pictures of two entirely different kinds of families: Park's loving, stable home life is in direct contrast to Eleanor's desperate, badly broken home.
Not only that, we learn a lot about our two main characters because of the way they fit in—or don't—with their own families. Eleanor's been abandoned by her family, leaving her an outcast even in her own house, and Park doesn't always see eye to eye with his dad. Families make all the difference in the world; Park's family brings Eleanor and Park together, but Eleanor's family rips them apart.
Park's parents have a loving relationship that helps Park understand his love for Eleanor.
Eleanor's not optimistic about love because she's never really seen it up close.
So we're going to use a broad umbrella here. Isolation, or aloneness, is a big theme in Eleanor & Park, and we think that includes the feeling of being different, and not fitting in. There are many kinds of isolation at work in this story—the isolation Eleanor feels because she's new at school and because she's targeted by bullies; the isolation Park experiences in his own family since he doesn't feel he's like his dad or his brother.
In a way, both Eleanor and Park are isolated from their peers, set apart by their interests and their personalities. And then there's Eleanor's actual, physical isolation. She's so cut off from the world in Richie's house that she doesn't even have a phone line.
Park keeps his distance from the kids on the bus, but he doesn't really like feeling alone.
Sometimes Eleanor isolates herself deliberately, but sometimes her family's responsible.
We can't really talk about Eleanor & Park without talking about love, can we? From the Romeo and Juliet references, to the intense descriptions of their first encounters, this book is all about love. More than that, it's about first love, and what it's like to fall for someone when you've never been in love before. This story challenges the idea of love at first sight, and definitely makes us think about what it means to intensely connect with another person.
Eleanor and Park did actually fall in love at first sight—they just didn't know it.
Eleanor definitely tells Park she loves him on the postcard she writes.
Sometimes, the pain and suffering described in Eleanor & Park is overwhelming. Eleanor's not only bullied at school, she's bullied horribly, in a scar-you-for-life kind of way. And the terrifying situation in her house is hard to even imagine. Eleanor's been abandoned by her mom, forgotten by her dad, and threatened by her stepdad, while her mom endures abuse on a daily basis, and Eleanor and her siblings huddle in fright. This book forces us to address suffering, and what happens when characters like Eleanor have to deal with it every day.
The threat of Richie's abuse hangs over Eleanor's head for most of the book, and it seems like this threat causes as much fear and suffering as abuse itself.
Eleanor thinks that sleeping through the noises of her mom's abuse is even worse than waking up. She's right.
With all of the suffering in Eleanor & Park, it's amazing our beloved characters can face some of the horrible situations they're up against. But both of them—Eleanor in particular—have plenty to spare in the bravery department. What does courage mean in this story? Maybe it's the ability to stare down a bully, but maybe, some days, it's deciding not to let the bad guys win.
Sometimes it takes more courage to let people go than to keep them with you.
Eleanor's decision to leave Park is incredibly brave, but she also doesn't really have a choice.
No matter when you go to high school, appearance is always something teens struggle with. Social status can sometimes be determined on looks alone, and that's something both Eleanor and Park experience in this book. Eleanor's immediately shunned because of how she looks, and Park's friends never fail to remind him that he doesn't look like anyone else in Omaha.
On the flip side, Eleanor and Park both express themselves through clothing (and in Park's case, makeup), making a statement with the way they look and asserting their differences. Rowell uses physical appearance in Eleanor & Park to tell us a lot about her characters, whether it's Eleanor's colorful fashion sense or Richie's rat-like face.
Mindy and Park use makeup differently, but Mindy understands why Park wants to wear eyeliner.
Eleanor dresses in men's clothing because she doesn't want her stepfather to see her as a woman.
In Eleanor & Park, abandonment primarily pertains to Eleanor and her family, and it's a big part of Eleanor's life. She spent her childhood with a father who never cared about her, and then spent a year in another family's house, thinking she'd been abandoned by her mother.
Once she's back at home, Eleanor repeatedly gets the message that she's not a member of the family—she barely has a place to sleep, she can't take a bath, and most of her possessions are gone. That has to have a big impact, and just might explain why she finds it easier to sever all ties with Park for a while at the end. Abandonment's the only thing she's ever really been shown how to do.
Eleanor's been abandoned in more ways than one: Her mom left her at a neighbor's house, but her dad abandoned her long before that.
Sabrina initially took Eleanor to the Hickmans to save her from Richie, but when she didn't call for six months, she hurt her just as badly.
Eleanor wears ties; Park wears eyeliner. Eleanor hates makeup; Park doesn't do sports. They have passionate discussions about gender roles in comic books. Oh, and Eleanor's the Han Solo in the relationship, which probably makes Park Princess Leia. Eleanor & Park's protagonists like to question traditional gender roles, pushing the envelope of what it means to be a stereotypical guy or girl. It's just one more thing that sets them apart from everyone else—and makes them perfect for each other.
Park decides to wear eyeliner to point out the fact that he's not a stereotypical guy, and at last, he's proud of it.
Park's mom has an easier time understanding why Park wants to wear eyeliner, than understanding why Eleanor doesn't want to.
From the opening pages of Eleanor & Park, it's clear that race is a big deal. It's the first thing we hear the kids talk about on the bus, and in this white, Midwestern town, anyone who's not white is an outsider. In Omaha in 1986, racist slurs are casually tossed around—this is not the PC world of today. Rowell makes us aware of what it must have been like to be a minority in a place with almost no other minorities at all. And guess what? It ain't easy.
Even though Park doesn't really know anything about being Korean, it's a huge part of his identity, just because he happens to look Asian.
Park's disinterest in his Korean heritage is a result of his mom's efforts to fit in in the United States.
Park comes from a well-adjusted home, with happily married parents and a cheerfully decorated house, while Eleanor's family is broken and dysfunctional, and her run-down house doesn't even have a bathroom door. We know Eleanor doesn't feel at home in her family's house—in fact, she doesn't really have a place she even feels safe there. Eleanor & Park looks at two completely contrasting ideas of home, and by showing us such different houses, we get to think about what a home really means.
Eleanor shows us that home can be a state of mind—when she's with Park, she feels more at home than anywhere else.
Mindy may have decorated Park's house to look nice, but the real reason their house is comfortable is that she and Jamie have a loving relationship.