Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Published: February 26, 2013 by St. Martin’s Press
Genre(s): Young adult, contemporary, romance
Pages: 328 pgs.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
One extraordinary love.
Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.
Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises…Park.
Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.
Anyone who knows me will agree when I say that I am extremely opinionated. I’m always feeling some type of way about literally everything that I come across, so believe me when I say that Eleanor and Park threw me for a loop. Upon reading and finishing this young adult staple, I found myself feeling…no type of way. Ambivalent. No feeling at all is a completely new experience for me, especially when it comes to books. But after a few days of careful consideration and reflection, I think I’ve finally nailed down some specific reasons as to why this book — beloved by many within the young adult community — really just didn’t move me one way or the other. Sorry to disappoint, y’all.
For those not in the know, Eleanor and Park follows the titular characters through their short, tumultuous high school romance through the 1986-1987 school year in Omaha, Nebraska. If you’re a political nut like me, you’d know that this is the heyday of the Reagan years, where casual racism and sexism were rampant — and overall accepted — throughout society. Being from a midwest town, especially during this time, makes these two targets for some kind of abuse from the locals: Park for being half-Korean, as well as veering away from traditional masculinity, and Eleanor for being a chubby, poor girl in a broken family. Through their time together, they bond over being the “weird” kids on the bus and their shared love of alternative music. However, since Eleanor’s home life is less-than-stellar, their relationship faces dramatic hurdles when things ultimately come to a head with Eleanor’s step-dad, Richie.
What gives me pause about this book is that I never really found myself rooting for the successes of anyone throughout the course of the story. I actually found all of the characters either completely annoying or outright despicable. There were a few glimmers of hope here and there for particular characters — like Park’s parents, for instance — where I wasn’t completely annoyed by their existence, but then said characters would turn right back around and continue doing exactly what made them so irritating in the first place, completely erasing what little character development they went through. Honestly, I would say Park was the only character that went through some actual positive development in the course of the story, in that he grows to accept himself more as a person as his relationship with Eleanor grows. He starts to experiment more with self-expression, learns how to stand up for those he cares about and, more importantly, himself. I also understand that the book took place in the midst of the Reagan years and that pretty much everyone was more outwardly racist in general, but I really found myself turning sour against Eleanor every time she called Park “the Asian Kid” in her head and even more so when she outwardly admitted that she was interested in him due to his ethnicity. (And don’t get me started on the “Kung Fu” comparison…ugh.) It just felt fetishizing to me.
However, I will give credit where it’s due in that Rowell has crafted a story that has intrigued me enough to keep on reading despite disliking all of the characters. Due to Eleanor’s home situation, I never really felt like I knew what was going to happen to her and Park, so I kept on reading to find out. I found myself surprised with how devoted I was to making sure that someone got a relatively happy ending, because a lot of truly awful things happen to these characters; as much as I didn’t care for them, Eleanor and Park didn’t really deserve any of the negativity that was thrown their way. Furthermore, I do have to commend Rowell on her portrayal of abusive relationships. Far too often in the young adult genre do we see spousal abuse as in your face and visible — which it absolutely can be, don’t get me wrong — but Rowell’s choice in making it more behind-the-scenes and never having a scene where Richie outright hits or rapes Eleanor’s mom shows the reality of abuse in the eyes of children: always implied, never explicitly there. This also was a good choice to make, given that it’s likely that a good portion of this book’s audience has been through these experiences and playing out the scenes could possibly trigger someone — such as myself — into reliving their negative memories.
So, overall, the negatives and the positives end up balancing each other out in a way. The things I dislike I truly, truly dislike, but I do have to commend Rowell on the things she actually nails. After consulting with a friend, I’ve gathered that feeling no type of way is still feeling some type of way, so even though I’m ambivalent about this book, at least it’s still an opinion. Kudos to staying true to myself at least.
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