As you walk down the street, you (if you’re paying attention and not Facebooking or Periscoping or whatever it is you do nowadays) take a mental catalog of what you see. Most of the time this is unconscious — you’ve been down this way before, or you’re trying to get to a meeting or a lunch and the route simply expresses the most efficient way of getting there. Then you spy a guy sitting against a building, resting his feet but clearly not sleeping. You can’t tell what race he is, other than “homeless” (which isn’t a race at all but also kind of is, really). His head’s not hanging, there’s no styrofoam cup/cardboard sign/instrument case, and his brow seems furrowed, his gaze steely.

What do you do?

Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those “That’s actually your CEO who fell in a mud puddle and aren’t you ashamed!” or “Surprise, it’s Jesus!” moralizations about how you you shouldn’t make determinations about people just based on their looks. 1 I absolutely wouldn’t blame you for avoiding him, or making sure other people are around, or even just edging over to the opposite side of the walkway, preparing but not making any overt moves. I also wouldn’t think better or worse of you if your response was (unconsciously or not) to continue doing exactly what you were doing, because that’s prejudiced, etc.

Boxes, labels, categories, cliques — whatever term you choose for the taxonomy, people apply it to other people. People we’ve just met, people we’re meeting for the first person, people walking down the street, people who don’t really exist, it doesn’t matter. We categorize people so that we can comprehend them, and the world around us at large. Sorting them removes the burden of keeping a usefully clear copy of every single person in your head, so that you can apply various ideas and thoughts toward them.

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And it’s helpful, in some cases! When a kid is torturing cats for fun, we shouldn’t necessarily lock him up right away but we certainly should take a closer look at hey, just how many pets has this kid buried in the last three years and maybe some counseling isn’t the worst idea? On a more a general scale, I would at least be taking note of the guy who’s showing signs of latent hostility (although it really doesn’t matter that he’s homeless — in fact, I’d be even more spooked if the above scenario was true and the man were outfitted in a three-piece suit and top hat).

But even in those cases, the question of whether or not there’s cause for alarm does not resolve itself through external markers or broad generalizations. Whether either the child or the perching dandy is a serial killer is determined not by the categories or labels, but by the people themselves. And now we can get to the book.

Eleanor and Park is a contemporary teen romance. Two teens fall in love, circumstances contrive to keep them apart, they attempt to overcome adversity … I’m sure you already have the plot filled in in your head, Mad Libs-style. But you’re probably wrong — and that’s kind of the point. The female half of the titular duo comes from a … broken home, at best (emotionally abusive stepfather who kicked her out for a year) and, being new to town, encounters The Jock, The Bitch and The Asian Kid (They have names, but only one — The Asian Kid is Park, as it happens — actually matters).

Most of her interactions with the people at school follow along stereotypical lines. Heck, even Park (he of the extensive tae kwon do experience) lands a jump reverse hook kick to The Jock’s nose when he insults Eleanor (overweight, wears funky clothes). I can recite a litany of stereotypical traits about each and every one of the characters, but while it could give you some idea to what they’re like, it ultimately paints an incomplete picture.

I’ll be quite honest — I didn’t expect to like Eleanor and Park very much when I started it. I read it on the advice/orders of my girlfriend, and expected it to be a teen romance novel much in the same way I expected the Maze Runner trilogy to be a teenage dystopian novel — very much of its genre, tweaking only small details, with stories interchangeable to an almost shocking degree. 2 But it surprised me. It didn’t invert, contravene and confound the trappings of the teen novel the way some of my favorite genre books subvert theirs, but it really worked for me. I cared about the characters, and I cared about what happened to them.

Even Eleanor comes around to the realization that you can’t just expect people to live up to the labels you give them when The Bitch helps her out of a jam when she really needs it. Even Park, who’s known the other girl all his life, is surprised.

“Thank you,” she said — he would swear that she was talking to Tina.

This night couldn’t get any weirder.

I’ll admit, this is not much to go on, as a review. “It’s like these other things, but it’s different than them because it’s better than those things …”

Ultimately, the point of a review is to tell you whether you should experience the work yourself. There are some books I recommend because they have great ideas that power the plot; some are full of interesting facts. Others have great characters, they’re laugh-out-loud funny, and on very rare occasions they’re some combination of all those things. This is a little bit of each, but not enough of any one thing to really stand out. It’s defying easy explanation. It’s not going to just sit there and let me or you pigeonhole it into a category (Amazon, et al., notwithstanding). It’s a book that’s going to stand on its own metaphorical two feet, and dare you to engage with it, to find out what it’s really about.

And you know what? Maybe you won’t like it. Maybe you’ll think it’s just like every other YA book, formulaic and unrealistic and a waste of your time. I can’t, and in fact wouldn’t try to convince you otherwise. But if it’s a judgment you made after having interacted with it, on the basis of its true merit … That’s really the most any piece of art, writing or music — or anyone — can ask of you. To not shunt it into your mental cubbyhole and leave it there to languish.

Sometimes you’re going to have to make snap judgments just to get through the world’s wearying amount of information flung at you. And sometimes you’re not. This book, I think, is worth being one of those times.


  1. Although actually it kind of is one of those, but much more broad.

  2. I have on multiple occasions confused parts of the Divergent, Maze Runner and Razorland series when describing them to people, and no one — least of all me, until later — even noticed. Not a problem I’ve ever encountered with, say, The Giver or The Hunger Games.