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Eleanor and Park is set in Omaha, Nebraska, over the course of the school year from the fall of 1986 to the summer of 1987. The book is in the third person, and the narrative alternates between Eleanor’s perspective and Park’s perspective. Eleanor Douglas is a tenth-grader who has just transferred to a new high school. Eleanor stands out from the rest of the students in her appearance, since she is “big and awkward,” has curly red hair, and wears men’s clothes with unusual accessories. No one wants to make room for her on the bus, but Park eventually lets her sit next to him. Eleanor is extremely smart and sharp, particularly excelling in English class. Her home life, however, is deeply troubled. Eleanor, her mother, her abusive and alcoholic stepfather Richie, and her four younger siblings, live in poverty. All the kids have to share one bedroom, and they can’t afford a phone. Eleanor has just returned back to her house after her the evil Richie kicked her out for a year. Richie terrorizes the whole family. Eleanor’s mom wants to be a peacemaker and pretend that everything is fine, even though Richie is violent and abusive. Eleanor doesn’t feel safe at home.
Fellow tenth-grade Park Sheridan feels like an outsider as well, though, unlike Eleanor, the other kids don’t really tease him. Even though he’s lived in Omaha his whole life, he doesn’t feel any deep connection to the other students at school. He is Asian American, which is very rare in Omaha, and he likes music and comic books. Park’s home life is much more welcoming than Eleanor’s, since his parents have a loving relationship and they have a comfortable lifestyle. However, Park faces tensions at home, since his dad wants him to be more masculine, and Park always feels like he’s letting him down
When Eleanor sits down on the bus next to Park, they are both sullen and resentful of the situation, especially since they both know the unspoken social code that once you choose your bus seat, you’re locked in to it for the year. Soon, however, this changes radically. Eleanor and Park slowly begin to form a connection over the course of their bus rides. They first build their relationship silently by listening to music and reading comic books together. Eventually, their relationship grows, they start talking, and their bus rides become the best parts of their days. When they finally hold hands, sparks fly. Park and Eleanor become infatuated with each other. Park tells Eleanor that he loves her, and Eleanor expresses her affection in many ways, yet she doesn’t ever say that she loves him back.
Though Eleanor and Park’s relationship blossoms, other parts of their lives do not go as well. Eleanor gets bullied at school, especially in the gym locker room, where the other girls cover her locker in sanitary pads and flush her clothes in the toilet. Park beats up Steve, a bully, for leading taunts against Eleanor. Eleanor’s home life also gets worse and worse. When Eleanor hears gunshots one night, she calls the police, which makes Richie angrier than ever.
Park and Eleanor both display some range of gender expression. Eleanor likes to wear men’s ties and shirts. Park’s mom has a tough time accepting Eleanor at first, because Eleanor doesn’t care about traditionally feminine beauty standards. But when Park’s mom realizes the hardships that Eleanor has been through, she can relate to her, and she sees that Eleanor is good for Park. Park discovers that he enjoys wearing eyeliner, which makes his dad furious, since his dad wants him to be more traditionally masculine. However, when Park sticks up for Eleanor and comes into his own as a confident person, Park’s dad eventually accepts Park for who he is.
The climax of the story comes when Eleanor returns home one night, just after she and Park kiss, to find that Richie destroyed her box of private possessions, which include mix tapes Park had made her and makeup from Park’s mom. Richie leaves Eleanor a threatening note, which makes Eleanor realize that Richie has been the one leaving lewd messages all over her textbooks that year. Eleanor escapes from the house. Two of the biggest bullies at school, Tina and Steve, help her out even though they’ve never been nice to her before because they can see that Richie is pure evil. Eleanor realizes that the one person she might be able to live with is her uncle in Minnesota, and Park immediately offers to drive her there. Eleanor and Park have a very bittersweet trip, because they know it might be the last time they see each other for a long time. After they part, Park tries sending letters and packages to Eleanor, but she is too upset to even let herself open them, and she never replies. Eventually, a heartbroken Park tapers off communication and tries to move on. At the very end of the novel, Eleanor finally writes Park a postcard that contains just three words. These words are not disclosed to the reader.