Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park bucks this trend with the most realistic young adult romance in years.
Park is the son of an Army veteran and his Korean wife. They don't live in the best neighborhood but they get by. His mother sells Avon and takes pride in her house and her sons. His dad is hard on him, and tends to favor his more traditionally masculine brother, but is still involved in his life and does the best he knows how. He's hardly a popular kid, and Taekwondo isn't enough to make him sporty, but he has is place on the bus and headphones to block out most of the noise from his classmates.
For all that Park's family does the best with what they have, Eleanor's family is an all too common disaster. As the oldest child, she stilll remembers how it was when her parents were still together. She remembers her mother baking cookies and making Christmas dinners. She remembers the kids having their own rooms, not to mention their own beds.
She remembers a time before her stepfather Ritchie. Before being sent to their shared bedroom at 4:30pm. Before having her mother guard the bathroom without a door while she takes as quick a bath as possible. After a year's exile to the friend of the family's house, Eleanor is back with her mother and siblings, and is determined to make the best of it.
Like most relationships, it isn't love at first sight. In fact, it is nearly the exact opposite. Not hatred, but an almost complete indifference. But as Eleanor and Park share a bus seat, and English class, they both begin to thaw towards one another. In typical 1980s fashion it begins with mix tapes and comic books, and slowly it develops into one of the most truthful, honest relationships I've ever read.
High school is hard. Some people have money and charisma and it's not so bad for them. Some people don't, but a loving family can make up for a lot, and fore them it can be tolerated. Some kids go through hell; tortured at school because kids are cruel, and then go home each night to another kind of nightmare.
Sometimes, two kids from very different backgrounds find one another, and together pull each other through.
Highs: Everyone in this book, from the overenthusiastic teacher to to Park's mother, react in very authentic ways.
Lows: That said, Eleanor's siblings didn't always ring true to me.
Verdict: Eleanor and Park transports the reader to those days in high school when life was harder than it should be and you couldn't do anything about it.