Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell centers around the lives of two teenagers in Omaha, Nebraska, during the mid-80’s. Eleanor has just moved back in with her mother and abusive stepfather. Forced to share a room with four younger siblings, Eleanor spends the majority of her time desperately trying to be invisible so that her stepfather won’t kick her out of the house again.
Eleanor finds herself forced to sit next to Park on the first day of school after being heckled and shunned by everyone else on the bus. Eleanor is large, with bright red hair and clothes that can only be called “strange”.
For several weeks, Eleanor and Park don’t interact at all. Park secretly thinks Eleanor is just weird, and Eleanor wonders how it is that the only Asian kid in school is simultaneously a misfit and part of the “in” crowd. One day Park looks over and realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder. After this, he starts giving her comics to borrow, until one day he comments on some song lyrics written on her book cover. This serves as the needed ice breaker, and soon the two find themselves talking non-stop about music, Han Solo, and the sexist undertones of X-Men.
On the surface, the two begin a fun and lighthearted teen romance, but beneath the surface we find that Eleanor’s entire family lives at the whim of her drunken stepfather. Eleanor can’t understand why her mother stays with him, but soon we start to see little glimpses here and there of how beaten down and worn out her mother has become.
In contrast, Park has a seemingly perfect home life. His parents can hardly keep their hands off each other, and his mother’s success as a beautician accords Park a certain acceptability with the cool kids.
Park and his father are constantly at odds since his father doesn’t understand his son’s seeming inability to learn to drive a stick or his penchant for wearing eyeliner and therefore constantly berates Park’s masculinity.
Finally, their individual situations reach a climax and Eleanor and Park are forced to face the realities of trying to turn a teen romance into “forever”.
Eleanor and Park has been compared to John Green‘s The Fault in our Stars or Paper Towns. I found, however, that it reminded me far more of The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LeBan. As with Duncan in The Tragedy Paper, Eleanor is starting over in a new school late in her high school career. In addition as with Duncan and his albinism, Eleanor’s red hair and large frame set her apart. Finally, both books are told through alternating perspectives and culminate in a sudden event that irrevocably changes the main characters’ lives.
While I enjoyed Eleanor and Park and found it to be a fun and easy read, I felt it lacked some of the elements that make a truly great novel. Rowell depends largely on cliches and predictability and fails to explore elements that could add complexity and believability for her characters. For example, Park’s mother is emphasized as being Korean, and Park struggles with what it means to him to be half-Korean, yet Park’s house seems devoid of anything resembling Korean culture. The author also gives no indication that Park’s parents encountered any difficulties as an interracial couple who began their life together in 1960’s Nebraska. Park claims that his previous lack of romantic success is due to a dearth of attractive male Asian examples, yet we discover his ex-girlfriend is still eager for his attention and the most popular girl in school has a crush on him.
In contrast, Rowell does an excellent job with Eleanor’s characterization. From the first day on the bus when she is labeled as “Big Red”, the reader can relate to Eleanor’s situation. Eleanor is portrayed as a smart kid who has all but completely shut herself off from everyone, due to the inability or unwillingness of the adults in her life to help. Her mother is so overrun with trying to anticipate the demands of her husband and with raising the younger children that she sees Eleanor more as a problem than a daughter. The school guidance counselor thinks everything can be fixed with a smile and a hug. Her teachers are seemingly unaware or unconcerned. As a result, Eleanor is sometimes sarcastic and caustic or shuts down when struggling to explain her family situation or the intensity of her own feelings towards Park.
Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park makes solid use of the time frame. Situations that would be solved by today’s modern technology such as cell phones or MP3 players are integral elements to the plot. When Park lends Eleanor his tape player, she worries about running down the batteries, noting that they are expensive. Eleanor also comments several times that she does not have a phone at home, making it difficult for her to call Park or for anyone to call her. Finally, the music that Rowell weaves into the plot was quintessential of the rise of the 70’s and 80’s punk culture.
Eleanor and Park is marketed for teens fourteen and up. This is an appropriate starting age due to themes of abuse, bullying, and teen sex.
I found Eleanor and Park to be a quick and enjoyable read. Rowell’s use of dialogue is her strongest point, but the over use of cliche’s and exaggerated physical descriptions read more like a beginning novel rather than the work of an established author. A few of the characters were believable in their flaws and insecurities, while others seemed either caricaturish or too undeveloped for their transformation to be realistic. As with The Tragedy Paper, the dual narrating voices added nicely to the storyline and kept the pace flowing well; however, I would have liked to have been given more insight into some of the lesser characters.