Title: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genres: YA, Romance, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
Two misfits. 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.
Everyone I know who has read Eleanor and Park has loved it. I’m talking five stars, constant recommendations and general fawning over the whole book. It’s set in the 1980s but has a contemporary feel; it’s about misfits and triumph over adversity; it’s a love story. From these descriptions and the endless hype, it sounded like Eleanor and Park was the perfect book for me.
It’s hard to admit, but it’s the truth. This book just didn’t work for me, and even worse than that, I hated some parts of it. There are several fundamental cornerstones of this book that fail miserably in their aims, and before I knew it, the entire novel’s credibility came crashing down as a result.
We may as well start with the big one: the romance. There is so much insta-love in Eleanor and Park it’s ridiculous. I pride myself on being relatively tolerant of fast-paced YA love stories – when they’re written well. Eleanor and Park’s romance is anything but enviable. It’s not even enjoyable. One day they despise each other and the next they’re declaring their undying love for one another. They swear they’ll never love again and that it’s. There’s no character development, no realism and nothing like the beautiful, memorable relationship I’d been promised by those behind the media storm that both preceded and followed the book’s release.
And the thing is, there are parts of Eleanor and Park’s relationship that are just downright creepy. I loved that the book was both historical and featured major POC characters - but Eleanor turns Park’s race into something so ‘Other’ you begin to wonder if she’s just obsessing over him because he looks different to anyone else she’s ever seen before, instead of her actually having an interest in what being mixed-race means to Park, and more importantly, who he is as a person, regardless of race. And the way Rainbow Rowell talks about Park’s ‘femininity’, which is directly attributed to his Asian ancestry, insulting him and then trying to make up for it by turning it into a fetish? That’s not only offensive to Park’s characterisation outside of being half-Korean, it’s also kind of racist.
In fact, characterisation as a whole is another fundamental problem in Eleanor and Park. Both of the title characters are far more flat and one-dimensional than they deserve. I’ve already mentioned how Park’s race seems to be his defining feature – which by the way, is more indicative of bad writing than diversity in YA – and Eleanor is similarly unrealistic. You sympathise with her because of her horrific family situation but there’s a difference between sympathising with and actually liking a character. I couldn’t relate to Eleanor, and no matter how much I wanted her to, she just never made that vital leap off the page.
Rowell does her best to pack plot into Eleanor and Park, but that doesn’t quite work out, either. There are so many issues left unresolved and even more that are barely explored at all, it felt as if she’d avoided the real intricacies of the book and just filled it with mind-numbing diversions instead. It’s so important to talk about tough topics like poverty, abuse, alcoholism and racism in YA, and while some of these very real problems do go hand in hand in reality, by shoving all of them into one novel, Rowell gives herself no time to explore any of them thoroughly. Nobody tries to help Eleanor escape the toxic environment in which she lives, but then again, neither does she try to help herself, and the same can be said of her mother, too. Nobody blames her abusive stepfather for being a despicable character either, which is basically Rowell saying that because these events supposedly happened in the past and it was ‘accepted’ then, it doesn’t need to be pointed out as a wrong.
Park comes has a more stable home life than Eleanor, but aside from her appearance, his mother’s Korean heritage is pretty much swept under the carpet. Park’s mother, married to a veteran and brought to live in Nebraska (white saviour complex, anyone?) is given no voice in this book. There’s no hint that – shock horror – she might actually have feelings about the life she left behind, whether they be positive or negative, or whether she wants to pass her culture onto her children, because Rowell as a writer just doesn’t give her the chance, and by extension, neither do her family.
One of the only things about the book I liked was the writing style. The short, snappy chapters helped keep the pace up and there is a frankness to Rowell’s writing that has to be admired. I only had one problem with it: the sheer volume of trivia and pop culture references. I’m all for pop culture in books – John Green, among many others, does it all the time – but Rowell doesn’t go a single page without reminding you this book is set in 1986 and it gets really irritating. I also had this problem with Sarra Manning’s Diary of a Crush series , despite the fact that I’d loved another of her books, Adorkable, so I probably should have seen it coming. Brand name references tart to wear thin after you’ve seen them crop up fifty times in thirty pages.
However, Eleanor and Park is not Rainbow Rowell’s only published work. Undeterred, I recently read her book Fangirl, and in all honesty, I wish I’d read that first. It’s such a wonderful book, brilliant in all the ways Eleanor and Park isn’t. If you’re going to read any Rainbow Rowell book, read Fangirl, because it’s fabulous, while Eleanor and Park just isn’t an enjoyable or well-drawn novel.