Summary from Goodreads:
Eleanor... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone see 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.
The highly celebrated and widely praised Eleanor & Park is, at this moment, the contemporary YA novel of 2013. It’s been getting attention from John Green, Stephanie Perkins, Courtney Summers, and other big-name authors. Really, it was practically impossible for me to ignore this one. In general, I find that hype often leads me astray, setting up expectations that are too high and giving me unrealistic ideas for what a book has in store. However, I do believe that no matter the circumstances, Eleanor & Park and I were doomed to be at odds.
On the surface, this book is one part teenage romance and one part discussion of screwed up families. Combining those two elements is a difficult task, and I don’t think Rainbow Rowell succeeded. This is in part because the romance between the titular characters was not in any way believable, and also due to the nearly ostentatious style of the depiction of Eleanor’s home life. All in all, I felt that certain aspects of the book didn’t match up with other aspects, and that was the first step to the unbalancing experience that was this novel.
Looking deeper, I was unsettled by both Eleanor and Park, though especially the former. Park, as a half-Korean in the 1980’s Midwest, stands out. This would be an excellent opportunity to explore the conflict and difficulty associated with having a different racial identity than the majority, but it was not used to its full potential. Instead, Park never got past the stage where he hated himself for being short and “girly” compared to his white father. It would have been nice to see him learn to accept himself more, and move past insecurities. Likewise, I failed to see growth in Eleanor. Rowell presents her as a standoffish overweight redhead with obvious underlying issues. Eleanor spends much of the novel overreacting in response to Park’s attempts to make friends and dealing with violent and confusing mood swings. Eleanor would get close to Park, then she would freak out and push him away, then they would make up. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum. The inner workings of Eleanor’s mind, such as they are, were a complete mystery to me. Because I did not understand her emotions, and was disappointed by her constant need to run away and hide and alienate, I did not find her to be a strong female protagonist.
Additionally, the supposed romance in Eleanor & Park failed to work for me. The two main characters are thrown together when new-girl Eleanor is forced to sit next to Park on the school bus. They spend the next several weeks not talking at all, until Park lets Eleanor borrow one of his comic books; then for a few weeks they read comic books together on the bus, but still don’t talk. Finally, they have a conversation longer than two sentences, and within 2 chapters Park proclaims his love for Eleanor. At the same time, however, both characters constantly bemoan how little they know they other. It seems to me that if you don’t know someone, you can’t truly love them. Rather, any love you claim to feel is directed toward the idea of that person, to an illusion you’ve built up in your mind. Shared passion for music and comic books does not true love make; Eleanor and Park’s supposed love was rooted in self-constructed fantasies. And even as they came to know each other over time, they never truly knew each other—some important secrets were not revealed until the final few chapters. Those final chapters, might I add, were filled with overwrought emotional angst that would have completely turned me off from this novel had I not already been prepared to pitch my copy in the trash.
On closer study, beyond the non-romance love story and the underdeveloped characters, I found that this book is…well, racist. I believe racism is a topic that can and should be dealt with in fiction, but always in a constructive, exploratory way that attempts to highlight issues and show an alternative (hopefully less harmful) mentality. I do not feel that Rainbow Rowell managed to do that. In one of the very first scenes where Eleanor displays any emotion at all, she complains about how all the white kids are in Honors classes and all the black are in regular; she then wishes she had less regular classes, so she could spend more time with her white peers. What, then, was the point of this internal monologue? I certainly think it did more harm than good, both to my perception of Eleanor and to my overall goodwill toward the text.
And then, in regards to Eleanor’s attraction to Park, I was somewhat horrified, especially after lengthy reflection. It felt like any time Eleanor thought about Park, she was obsessing about the shape of his eyes or the color of his skin. I’m not saying that it’s bad to notice those things or to admire them, but Eleanor took it to the point where she was—for lack of a better word—objectifying Park’s appearance. It was disgusting.
Other reviewers have already pointed out the serious problems associated with Park’s mother, a Korean in the 1980s Midwest, and her status in society and in the home. I will not discuss that here, though I highly suggest readers look at Tiffany and Laura’s reviews—they’re very valuable critiques, both written by women of Asian descent.
And just speaking on the whole, Eleanor & Park was full of very casual racism, mostly from Eleanor but also from her mother, her peers, and occasionally from within Park’s family. For instance, when a girl in the neighborhood became pregnant, rather than worrying about unprotected premarital sex and the resulting baby, everyone was focused on the fact that this girl’s boyfriend was black. Rowell’s treatment of race in this book seemed sloppy, and though she didn’t condone racism, neither did I feel she was aware of the implications her presentation had.
In the end, all I can say is that Eleanor & Park is highly problematic. It is very much a book for fans of John Green, as this book attempts some of the same things Green does, and in much the same way. I do think Rainbow Rowell is a talented author. I think she has a found a niche for herself in writing about misfit teens (like Green). But I strongly rebel against the messages and execution of this book; between the covers and over the course of 300 pages, I found many things I take issue against.