The reader learns that a boy keeps thinking about a redheaded girl named Eleanor, but that he has stopped trying to bring her back to him. Eleanor haunts the boy’s imagination.
The novel is written in the third person, but the point of view alternates between Eleanor’s and Park’s. Each time the perspective changes, the switch is marked with a paragraph break and the character’s name.
The story begins in August of 1986. Park has his headphones in, trying to ignore obnoxious chatter between Steve and Tina, two of his classmates. In a racist conversation about a martial arts movie, Steve makes a comment about Park’s mom being Chinese, and Tina corrects him to say that she’s Korean. A new girl boards the bus. She’s a bit larger and awkward with bright curly red hair. Everyone has already claimed a seat on the bus, and whenever Eleanor tries to approach an empty seat, no one lets her sit. Park finally moves his backpack over so she can sit down. They don’t speak to each other, and Park anticipates a “world of suck” from this action.
Eleanor sits on the steps in front of school and considers her options as she stares at her bus, Number 666, parked in the lot. On the one hand, she could walk home from school, but she doesn’t know the address. Her mom doesn’t have a car, and calling her dad isn’t a possibility. Her mom has offered to have Richie, Eleanor’s stepdad, drive her to school, but Eleanor is determined to avoid that choice, so she decides to get on the bus. She and Park frown at each other and sit in silence.
Park expects Steve to tease him about sitting next to the new girl, but Steve is still blathering about martial arts. Park knows a lot about martial arts, but because his dad is interested in it, not because his mother is Korean. Park has spent all day strategizing how to get away from the new girl, but he hates himself for doing that, and realizes that she might actually be a good buffer against being bullied himself.
Eleanor had been in Park’s English class that afternoon. Mr. Stessman, the teacher, asks Eleanor to read out loud an Emily Dickinson poem about eating, which Park found insensitive. Mr. Stessman was very impressed with the way she read it.