One book, four views. Here’s The Wind-Up Books Chronicle’s first group review, by Kelly Thompson (@79SemiFinalist), Lilith Wood (@lilwould), Lauren Lola (@akolaurenlola), and loudlysilent (@loudlysilent): “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell. Join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook!
First and foremost, there was literally only one thing I did not like about Eleanor & Park, and it was the ending. Not the whole ending, just the very last teasing baiting bits of it. I am not the kind of person that needs my ending all tied up in a neat little “hollywood-like” bow. I don’t mind some ambiguity. And as a writer of novels myself, I understand the urge as a writer to leave things a bit more open… but THROW A GIRL A BONE, Rowell! Argh! It didn’t have to be SO open and aggravating.
Whew. Yeah. So I would have liked a bit more clarity there. It felt deliberately (dare I say it, cruelly?) open ended in those final words and it left me with a slightly bad feeling about the book. Perhaps Rowell was trying to help us REALLY relate to Park and what Eleanor had done to him (sheer torture), but she’d already done a great job with that in a more organic way, so I didn’t need the extra push which felt a little calculated and like shouting “here I am WRITING.”
That aside, I loved this book and tore through it in a single day. Even though, if pressed I prefer “Fangirl” (simply because it’s so in my thematic and geek wheelhouse), I do think “Eleanor & Park” is by far Rowell’s most accomplished and even work. The characters of Eleanor and Park both feel absolutely alive on the page and more than any of her other books, the stakes, thanks to Eleanor’s increasingly dangerous home life situation are her highest of any of her books. Her books are not particularly high on stakes usually, a testament to the beautiful and emotional characters she writes, I think, that we still devour them so rabidly. But the stakes in “E&P” really drive the book and Rowell balances on a razor’s edge for almost the entire book, keeping readers so anxious and worried (in a fantastic way) that the book is impossible to put down, impossible not to invest in.
It’s also wonderfully refreshing to have these main characters be outsiders — to a degree — and outsiders that don’t just take off their glasses at the end and reveal themselves to be perfect and beautiful prom queens and star quarterbacks. Especially when it comes to Eleanor, her poverty is shocking and gut wrenching and absolutely palpable and though she “gets out” in a way, that problem is never easily solved for her and she must give up SO MUCH in order to “solve” it at all. I appreciate that there were no easy fixes for these characters.
It is great to have a character of color as our lead (or one of our leads, though I tend to think of Park as the REAL lead) and I liked the natural way that his race was an issue for him and also not at all an issue for him. It felt very real and relatable, no matter who you are. In an odd way it’s also refreshing that Rowell let her lead be her male character as many of these kind of books tend to focus on female protagonists, which I of course enjoy, but it’s always nice for a fresh change of pace, and Park very much feels like a nice fresh change of pace as a character. Park is somehow both unique and yet utterly someone readers can empathize with and relate to.
I should probably just end it there, but I have to also mention the way that Rowell handles teen sexuality in this book. She really does skirt a wonderfully fine line. The book feels so real and important in these young relationships and their budding sexuality and desire for one another which is both all encompassing and desperate and thus so real but also fumbling and insecure. It’s powerful stuff.
“Eleanor & Park” uses simplicity to its advantage without being simplistic. Rainbow Rowell makes us remember the confinement of adolescent routines and how new details and sensations can pop one by one against a dreary backdrop. She shows how this can add up to dawning love and other, worse realizations. And she uses good, sturdy sentences that are built for adult realities and not just puppy love.
The book starts with Park listening to his Walkman and thinking about what music he chose to leave the house with. Because this novel is set in the 1980s, music exists as discrete physical objects that are hard to get your hands on if you’re a kid. This is compounded for Eleanor because she is so poor. Music isn’t just everywhere; it is valuable — it’s something at the end of a quest. When Park gives Eleanor access to his tapes, the music hits her hard. The way it washes over her echoes the sensations of holding Park’s hand for the first time.
The description of Eleanor and Park holding hands for the first time is swoon-worthy partly because these characters are relatable and fully formed. This makes it more stunning to realize how new everything is for them. They don’t know what it’s like to be in love, and they have had almost no romantic physical contact ever. They don’t have chances for it, they don’t have memories of it, and they haven’t grown familiar enough with it to take it for granted. Many rules and hazards have kept Eleanor and Park from rushing headlong at each other. This makes every single first sweeter and harder won. It’s also a bittersweet progression because Eleanor’s home life is terrible, and that is her biggest obstacle to being with Park.
When things in Eleanor’s home life get really serious, Rowell’s sentences can handle that too. Her sentences aren’t exaggeratedly simple, but they feel simple, because she’s good at them. I think good, clear sentences have an effect beyond what the average reader even registers. It’s harder than it looks to get the words to follow one another plainly, letting the reader see things clearly in his or her mind. Rowell leans on facts and observed details, which gives great understated power to these kids’ fear, hope, joy and sadness.
I had heard about “Eleanor & Park” prior to reading it, but I wasn’t sure if I would like it. I tend to avoid the overly hyped YA novels if I can help it (unless there is actual substance in it) and as far as young love goes, I’ve never really been big on that, genre-wise. On the flip side though, I was interested to hear that there is a mixed race character as one of the protagonists, and that’s incredibly rare to find these days; to come across books with such diversity.
“Eleanor and Park” was read all the way through in quick amount of time, and I’m left with mixed feelings about it. This book had racism, bullying, and domestic abuse throughout. Underage drinking and sex were mentioned — if not given explicit head nods to — during certain parts of the book. On top of all that, we have two young people struggling to see and feel what it’s like to be in love for the first time, in a time when The Police were still promptly heard on the radio. It felt incredibly real with all these elements combined. It was a different kind of love story.
Unfortunately, in my eyes, it was not one of the stronger YA novels that I’ve read. In fact, I found it quite irritating at times. For instance, I would recommend that Rowell do a more proper research next time before giving a half-Korean kid a Korean surname as a first name. Not to mention that all those times in the beginning that Eleanor would refer to Park as a “stupid Asian kid” were elements that I particularly didn’t find necessary. So what if this takes place in the Midwest? I figured she’d be smart enough to at least know he has a name! The pacing of the book felt very stop-and-go to me, especially as it constantly switches back and forth between Eleanor and Park. Not to mention that the relationship between them didn’t feel as well-developed as it could have.
I don’t know if I’ll ever read this book again. I might not ever. But at least I now know what happens in this overly raved novel.
This book is a wake-up call for educators and observant adults: there are kids around us in abusive, impoverished living situations who fly under the radar. I read “E&P” in shock at Eleanor’s condition: she spends the majority of the book without owning a toothbrush. She shares a bedroom with four siblings, including a baby (who is referred to unnamed as “the baby” until near the end). Her alcoholic, abusive step-father is terrifying. Eleanor finds refuge in an unassuming, blatantly normal guy: Park.
Rowell unpacks a lot of why/how Eleanor is attracted to Park — his hair! His cheeks! His rock band tshirts and oh-so-green eyes! — but very little about why Park likes Eleanor. Park clues us in that he thinks she’s quirky, adorkable, brave; that’s about it for most of the book. The ramp-up from acquaintances to BFFs/love interests happens like a blink, which feels both accurate and inaccurate of the teen experience. I often thought the dialogue suffered from “Gossip Girl” syndrome: I caught myself thinking, “Teens don’t actually talk like that.”
I expected lighthearted, John Green-ish fare due to its popularity. “E&P” is nothing like John Green. It’s not very funny — no LOL moments here — and overwhelmingly serious, even bleak. You just want Eleanor to attain a better life. Unworthiness colors all of her interactions with Park: she doesn’t think a guy could like her because of her body type and home of origin. She finds mostly happy families to be magical and idyllic.
Rowell is a fantastic writer, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like this book. Its excellence might be overshadowed by its depressed tone. Standout positives:
- Eleanor’s friendship with two girls in her gym class, both of whom are Black.
- Eleanor’s description of her self-image: “Eleanor was already built like she ran a medieval pub. She had too much of everything and too little height to hide it.”
- Park finally revealing his insecurity about his Asian identity: “Nobody thinks Asian guys are hot. …I’ve had my whole life to think about this.”
- Park’s frustration over being pigeonholed as Korean: “It’s the number-one thing people use to identify me. It’s my main thing.”
Have you read “Eleanor & Park”? What were your thoughts?