Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

» 6 May, 2013 » Book Reviews » 38 comments

Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow RowellTitle: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Release Date: February 26, 2013
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Page Count: 325
Genre(s): Realistic Fiction
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.

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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.

1 Stars


38 Responses to “Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell”

  1. Danielle

    Wow I’m kinda delighted to see a negative review on this book simply because I get scared of books being over hyped. I confess I haven’t read it yet specifically for that reason. This was an excellent review, you hit on points that I hadn’t seen brought up in the many other reviews I’ve read and I was completely unaware of several of the plot strands you mentioned. I feel more positive about reading this now because I don’t feel under so much pressure to fall at its feet in adoration ;-p
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    • Renae M.

      Haha, well I’m glad to see you’re more willing to read this now! That way you can decide for yourself if this is the kind of book for you. :)

  2. Dana

    This one is on my TBR list but I’ve been in no hurry to read it because of the hype. Many times I go into such highly books and come away really disappointed. Seeing a negative review helps me relax, strangely enough, because if I end up disliking it, it wasn’t just me. Great review, Renea!
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    • Renae M.

      I think it’s helpful, before going into a book, to be able to read opinions on both ends of the spectrum. Even if you don’t read those reviews (I don’t), it’s more reassuring.

  3. Christine

    Sigh. This is why I can never trust hype. I have seen nothing but positive reviews for this book, and it is great to have read this one. I was contemplating on letting the hype monster swallow me, but this review has totally convinced me not to suffer that demise.

    I cannot imagine reading a book that conveys racism in such a convenient way. It makes me feel as though Rowell only added it as a rabblerouser. This book could have explored racism with much more depth. I actually expected it to. The characterization sounds poorly-done as well. Teen angst is not enough to develop a character at all. I cannot believe the two took so long to actually talk to each other too! What bothers me the most though is the “romance”. It sounds completely underdeveloped and unrealistic – especially considering the time it is set in! Nonetheless, this book had heaps of potential. It is very sad that it failed in its execution. Thanks for your very helpful and reliable review.

    • Renae M.

      Yeah… I’m not Asian or anything (though I have dealt with Hispanic stereotypes all my life), but this felt very much like a white person’s view on what it’s like to be Asian. Like when Park call’s his mom a “China doll” or says that everything that makes Asian women hot only makes Asian men look effeminate. Did NOT sit comfortable with me at all.

      Plus, I really don’t do angst most of the time, so all the angst these two characters had was a bit much for me.

  4. Aman

    When I first heard about this, I thought it has to be the most adorable story ever, and then great reviews started popping up and I was very interesting in giving it a try, but the open/unfinished ending made me hesitate. Now after your review, I’m more doubtful about it. I don’t think it’s for me right now, and great job on the review. My 1 stars are always ranting. lol
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    • Renae M.

      Haha, I try not to rant, since I’m always embarrassed about those reviews a few weeks later. Not that ranting is bad.

      But yeah. I obviously don’t recommend this book too much (or at all), but if you’re really curious, I still encourage you to read it—I’m most certainly in the minority with this one.

  5. Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books

    Even with the tons of positive and highly rated reviews, I have not been very interested in reading Eleanor and Park. The subject matter doesn’t interest me, nor does the decision to place the story within the 80s. I do appreciate reading these more critical reviews of it – especially the focus on the problems of racism within the novel. It does sound problematic in that regard, but at least by pointing out that issue, it fosters discussion and hopefully helps readers become more critical and aware of the representation of such issues.
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    • Renae M.

      I think that the concept for this book is good—I enjoyed the bare bones plot enough to merit a 3 star rating—but the execution and treatment of race was really not handled in a way that felt constructive. Unfortunately.

  6. Isa

    I read Eleanor & Park just before the hype and I’m glad I did because I didn’t have high expectations going into it. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I didn’t critically read Eleanor & Park, I was so taken with the characters and the description of their love that I failed to notice the novel’s shortcomings. I related so personally with Eleanor’s home life, her storyline hit me painfully so maybe I was seeing what I wanted to see. I appreciate the negative reviews you linked as well as your own, it gives me more insight into the portrayal of race in this book as well as the inaccuracy concerning the historical context. When I decide to reread this, hopefully I’ll be able to read it with a different perspective.
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    • Renae M.

      Well, hype or no hype, I definitely would have ended up disliking this just as much. I do think, though, that if it’s hard to find a negative review for a book, it’s most likely too good to be true.

  7. Kelly

    I was one hundred and ten percent ready to jump on the E&P bandwagon; everyone was RAVING about it. And then I started to notice a slow trickle, that has since built into more of a stream, of reviewers who condoned E&P for being racist, among other things. I’m now on the fence, and much of what you have said doesn’t encourage me to pick up a copy. Then again, it was crazy hyped up, so I’m still curious.
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    • Renae M.

      That’s the way hype seems to work—at first it’s all YAY book, and then you get mid-range reviews. And then Renae comes along to crush everyone’s good feelings to dust. Er…well maybe not like that, lol.

      But if you’re still curious, I say go for it! I’m really in the minority with this one, so chances are high that you’ll end up liking it at least a little bit.

    • Sea

      I am Korean and I disagree that the book felt racist. I grew up in the US and Korea and even though I speak perfect Korean (and perfect English), I get that feeling of being Asian but not necessarily having it take over my identity. I obviously look Asian but I have, at times, felt very distanced from the heritage because I was born in the US. I can imagine that someone who is half-Asian with a very domineering white father, in a very white neighborhood, with a mother who doesn’t share much about her Korean background, would feel distanced from that part of himself and also tend to think in terms of “stereotypes” about the Asian part of him. I don’t think that makes him racist, or the author racist. It felt very real to me.

  8. Christina (A Reader of Fictions)

    As you know, I loved this book, and I actually debated whether I could handle reading your review, thus why I’m only checking it out this morning. Turns out I can. *pats self on back*

    Anyway, I felt completely differently about the romance and the characters. To me, Park does come to accept himself and love that he’s different, just as Eleanor finally learns to go for what she wants. But, obviously, I connected to the characters in a way that you did not, and that can make all the difference. I know I’ve written reviews where I said the characters were flat as the paper they were written on and without any development, only to see reviews by others I respect praising the excellent characterization, so, strange as it may seem, both opinions can be correct at the same time. It’s sort of like Schrodinger’s Cat.

    That went to a weird place.

    As for the racism thing, I don’t know. I read the two reviews you linked before, and I see the point, but I’m not sure that I feel the same way about it. Actually, most upsetting is that bit about the black students, which I totally don’t remember. When I reread this book, I’ll try to keep more of an eye on that. I will freely admit that I’m generally so happy to see a POC that I assume the author’s intentions are good. So.

    Oh, one clarification, though: E&P isn’t a contemporary novel. It’s historical, as it’s set in the 80s.
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    • Renae M.

      The thing with “historical fiction” is that there’s no set definition besides “fiction set in the past”. And everyone’s idea of what “the past” is varies. We can probably all agree that the early 1900s are “the past”, but around the 60s/70s it gets fuzzy. There’s really not a right answer or a universal definition, and I’ve read lots of articles debating where the historical/contemporary cut-off should be. And I think it’s really a matter of reader’s opinion. For me, this book wasn’t historical fiction; for you, it obviously was. Really, we’re both right. So yeah.

      • Christina (A Reader of Fictions)

        For me, the definition of contemporary is that is set in roughly the time it is published. So, I would call even something set more than five years ago not contemporary. But I might have a more strict definition. This is why I mostly prefer the term realistic fiction, though I cave and use contemporary, because that’s what everyone says. Contemporary is a muddy term with little meaning. I like my definition because it means something to me. But, also, Jane Austen’s books would be contemporary novels, and everyone would look at you like you’re crazy. With your definition, will all of the current contemporaries become historical fiction in a few years?
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        • Renae M.

          Probably not. I tend to consider things historical fiction if they’re set more than 50 years (give or take) from the time the author wrote it, regardless of what time I’m reading the book in. That’s how it was first presented to me in a fiction writing class, so it’s the one I’ve stuck with, though it’s certainly not the “correct” definition. So Eleanor & Park is toeing that line, and in that case I mentally classify on a case by case basis and see how I feel the setting factored in. But for books like, say, Stephanie Perkins, I’ll keep on calling them contemporary. And though I probably wouldn’t call Jane Austen “contemporary”, neither do I classify her as “historical fiction”, going back to my 50 years rule of thumb.

          • Christina (A Reader of Fictions)

            Huh. I’m pretty sure that I got my definition of contemporary from school as well. We were taught that a contemporary novel was one set in the time it was written in, basically. I guess that could give you a fifty year swing (or more) if it was published posthumously or something, and, obviously, that can be a bit tricky because books can take a while to be published or an author might sit on it for a while before being able to get it out. Though I doubt that’s the case with E&P, which is why I called it historical. Ha.
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    • Renae M.

      Well. Even if this had been the least hyped book in the world, I would have still disliked it. I’m learning, though, that if a book has very few negative reviews, I should probably not read that book.

  9. Alexa Y.

    I read this one before the hype became really huge, and I really, really liked it. Honestly, I felt the love story was authentic and real, mostly because I’d experienced a lot of the strange new feelings and thoughts that Eleanor & Park did. I think that’s why I enjoyed it as much as I did when I read it way back when. I’m sorry that it ended up disappointing you though!
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    • Renae M.

      I really didn’t mind the love story at all, though it wasn’t my favorite. On it’s own that would have merited three stars from me. It was the casual racism that bothered me the most. And hype or no hype, I would have felt the same. Unfortunately, since I do like the concept for this and the bare bones ideas.

  10. Alise

    I’ve got this one on hold at the library. After raving reviews I think my eyes bulged out when I saw your one star rating! “Eleanor is forced to sit next to Park on the school bus” ARGH, this frustrates me to NO end. It can’t be an “epic” romance unless the characters are practically forced together? This is being so tiring to see. Ugh, I really enjoy learning about Korean culture and consider myself somewhat versed so to hear it isn’t portrayed properly… Sad about the character development as well, if the main characters are bad-it brings the whole story down right from the start.
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    • Renae M.

      The thing is that there was NO discussion of Korean culture in this book at all. Park’s mother never talked about Korea, and Park was really embarrassed by being “different”, to the point where he hated that his mother wasn’t white. A look at a different culture/race would have been GREAT, but it never happened.

    • Renae M.

      Peer pressure is probably responsible for 80% of the hyped books I don’t like, haha. I need to add “no thanks” to my vocabulary. But chances are you will love this and just laugh in my general direction, haha. ;)

  11. Rachelia (Bookish Comforts)

    Just as I said on Twitter, I was a bit sad that you didn’t like E&P but at the same time, that is the beauty of reading — everyone approaches and receives books differently.

    Personally, I really loved the book but I can see that there were issues, such as depictions of race, that I probably overlooked because I was swept up in the story. Thanks for bringing that up and discussing it! I wonder if upon re-reading I’d have a different opinion of the story.
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    • Renae M.

      I get like that sometimes, too! I’ll be all “THIS BOOK IS AMAZING” and someone will come along anound point out X,Y, and Z problems. Sometimes it’s really just a matter of emotions and time/place.

  12. Rachel

    Great review, Renae. I know you were pretty nervous about posting this one, but I think you articulated your thoughts very well. I had a hard time saying why I wasn’t impressed by the book, but I think you explained it very well.
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  13. Katty

    You raised some good points, and even though I think this book is very deserving of all the praise it gets, I appreciate seeing a more critical review. That being said, I don’t feel like you gave the book enough credit in many ways.

    I believe the way Eleanor and Park’s relationship forms and fluctuates is a true strength in the book. For example, the way Eleanor initially reacts to Park’s attempts to be friends. Imagine Eleanor’s life for a moment – someone who’s been bullied by peers (and her stepfather) as well as neglected to a large degree. Do you think she’s going to have an easy time trusting people and drawing close to them? Based on her past, it doesn’t make sense for her to be that open with people, no matter how well their intentions may be. And even once she did open up to Park, it’s understandable that she would still have a difficult time. Years of being let down and abused takes an emotional toll that doesn’t just go away after making a friend or having a boyfriend. I understand that this aspect of Eleanor’s character is not something that is going to resonate with everyone, but that doesn’t mean her characterization is weak or that she isn’t a good protagonist.

    Yes, some of Eleanor and Park’s love is rooted in fantasy. But that’s common, especially for characters so young. Eleanor and Park are inexperienced with romance, so it makes sense that their expectations and ideas of each other are going to be unrealistic to an extent. That doesn’t make it invalid or bad. Park being in “love” with Eleanor so quickly, for example. Isn’t it fairly normal for teens to start to develop feelings for someone and then claim they’re in love? Is that love inaccurate? Maybe. But certainly not unrealistic. And despite some of it initially being fantasy, it does become more. It still isn’t perfect. They still don’t know everything about each other. But it isn’t nothing either. And why do you need to know everything (or every major) thing about someone to love them? Many couples have aspects of their lives or pasts that are hidden from their partner. Not that it’s right or that it won’t become detrimental, but it doesn’t mean their love for each other is invalid either. And as far as the comic book and music stuff, that made a lot of sense to me. Two kids riding a bus together aren’t going to suddenly delve into personal issues, but they might bond over something the other is reading or listening to.

    I do think you make some good points about the way race is handled in the book, and I understand how those aspects of the story may make people uncomfortable and pose problems. But some of the things you addressed in your review didn’t bother me or even worked well, in my opinion. Take Eleanor’s perceptions: firstly, with wanting to be in classes with white students. Is this racist? Yeah, it is. But it also makes sense that Eleanor, a girl who wants to fit in and go unnoticed, would also want to be in a place where she can most likely identify with those like her. It doesn’t make it right or good – because it’s not – but it does make sense. And I feel like Eleanor does have a lot of growth and change in this regard. She learns to identify with people outside of her race, not because of how they look, but because of who they are. And that’s a good thing.

    As far as her attraction to Park, once again, her descriptions of his appearance may be a little bit much, but I fail to see how it’s “disgusting”. Yes, she admires his Korean traits, but that isn’t the only aspect of his appearance that she comments on or enjoys.

    And for the rest of the characters, yes, there’s racism. It exists throughout the book. Not always in an overt, obvious way, but it’s continuously there. And honestly, it was something I liked about the book. Not because I approve of racism in any way, shape, or form. But it makes this setting – middle to lower class Omaha, Nebraska in 1986 – authentic. If you look at the context, comments like that absolutely would have been present. There was (and still is) a lot of subtle racism, often from people who aren’t wholly bad or even fully aware of how they’re coming off. The world isn’t divided between hardcore, using the N-word and threatening minorities racists and people who are completely tolerant and aware of how they treat and perceive others. Almost all of it lies in between. And this book, to me, captured that very, very well. I understand why some readers took issue with some of ways Rowell addressed race and why some were frustrated by her not making it have a bigger impact in the book. But the fact that she made ordinary, everyday racism (which unfortunately does exist) present in her novel, and from prominent characters too, made the book all the more authentic.

    Like I said, you mentioned some things that other reviews did not address, which I appreciated. But ultimately, I feel like you sold this book a little short, especially because you seemed to hold it to higher standards just because of “the hype”.

    • Plum

      I agree with you so much! I’m not from the US so when I was reading the book, I assumed all the comments about race were from the point of view an average 80s high school student. I wasn’t so much focused on making sure the characters were politically correct. I found that the characters were very authentic with their personalities because they were no where near perfect. For Eleanor’s ‘musings’ on Park’s Asian face, I didn’t find anything wrong with that. I found it absolutely adorable. I am Asian and when I look at Americans I admire their tall noses so much and their different colored eyes and their bright colored hairs. But I do not think that makes me racist.

      Park’s mom, you’d say, isn’t proud of her Being Korean and all she wants to do is fit in. I can very much relate to this because that’s how my Filipino relatives act when they finally get to the states. They want to leave all the hardship of their third world country behind and start living the American dream. Most of them would even contrast America so much with the Philippines and how it is so much better. Again, it’s not the ideal response from people as you’d expect them to be proud of where they came from but it’s really not that far fetched from reality either. It happens.

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