Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park Young Adult Book Review

Recommended for: YA fiction lovers who are into quirky romance novels that are presented with an out-of-the-ordinary element (read: lovers John Green, Sarah Dessen etc.)

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Once upon a time…

A more appropriate title for this book would be Two “Misfits” in Love, but I digress. Eleanor & Park is set in the town of Omaha, Nebraska during the 80s. It takes place over the course of one school year, following the budding romance between two out-of-place  sixteen year olds who meet on the bus to school. Eleanor is the weird new kid who endures the torment of her peers throughout the school day only to deal with a different kind of torture in her own home. Park, on the other hand, is a comic book lover trying his best to stay as far under the radar as possible. When these two cross paths, an unlikely romance begins, taking them both to a place they’d never imagined in this quirky, heartfelt tale of first-love and the complications that accompany it.

The Nitty Gritty

Here’s my unpopular opinion: I didn’t like it, and I had a hard time deciding whether to give this a two-creature rating or a three-creature rating (to be honest, I’m still debating). That isn’t to say there weren’t some “Oh, okay…” moments for me while I was listening to it. I just won’t ever go to bat for this book. I think what ruined Eleanor & Park for me was all of the hype. I came in expecting greatness. Instead, I got a poor knockoff of the star-crossed lovers trope (sans the dying). There were some major things that I found problematic that just won’t allow me to think this was the greatest book that has ever been written about first love (because it’s definitely not).

Let’s start with the good. The use of the two perspectives was well-done. I thought it gave the story a more rounded feel because I always feel like there’s something missing when a story is just told from one person’s point of view for the whole book/series. I think this stood out even more because I experienced Eleanor & Park in audiobook format. Both Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra did a wonderful job capturing the essence of these characters through tone and diction.

Another place I felt that Rowell really held me was with the nature of Eleanor and Park’s relationship. Rowell really captured the emotion of first love in high school with her title characters. The two began with a wordless introduction into these feelings that slowly escalated into them speaking more and drifting into that clichéd “I am going to die if I don’t see him” kind of love that I usually expect from YA novels anyway (because that’s just how it happens for some teens). However, after about mid-way through the book, it got more than a bit repetitive for me. I understood that most of their relationship was formed on the bus, but the whole thing just got stale for me after a while. I wanted more. And the times we actually got more (i.e. their awkward exploration of each other’s bodies), I wanted to fall in love with the characters. It was so human, and I loved Rowell for it.

Now, onto the bad. I can’t with a clear conscious tell you whether or not it was well-written because I listened to the audiobook, and that got a bit distracting since I was listening with two other people. I can, however, say that Rowell did try something a bit different by including two unusual* main characters– a chubby redheaded girl with untamable curls and a half-Korean boy. However, they weren’t enough. I feel as though the characters themselves weren’t explored enough, and I found myself unable to buy into them half of the time (as you’ll come to know, a fair portion of my opinions of books stems from the writer’s ability to give me real characters and not unintentional caricatures).

* I say “unusual” because no one ever wants to truly write about minorities or characters that don’t stand up to the current standard of beauty. Which is a fucking shame.

With Eleanor, Rowell committed the cardinal sin when she dumped every bad thing she could possibly think of on her first title character. It’s like she skipped that important lesson in Creative Writing 101. It just comes off a bit lazy to create the poster child of the tragic back story/life. That sort is actually quite over done in the YA genre, ya know? So, instead of sympathizing with Eleanor, I often found myself rolling my eyes when yet another bad thing happened to her. Oh, the girls at school decided to take her clothes so she has to wear her too-tight gym outfit around? *Yawn.* I’m past the point of caring which is bad because I wanted to love her.

As for Park, I was greatly disappointed in his development– or, rather, lack thereoff. This is a half-Korean teen living in an interracial household in Ohama, Nebraska in the 80s. Rowell was given such an opportunity to explore this topic further, but she seriously dropped the ball there. Instead, she painted the Sheridan’s mixed family as being completely perfect and not having really experienced any racism in their small-minded town. Not to mention, some of the parts dealing with the parents (as told by Park) came off as a gross fetishization to me at some points considering the time and how his parents met and whatnot– American soldier falls for and brings back a Korean woman. That’s all you need to know. Meanwhile, I have a tough time believing the focal point of kids’ criticisms during this time is a white girl. Sorry not sorry. We get one moment where Park does get self-deprecating but only over his appearance as if that is the whole of the problem. I just believe that if Rowell was going to take such a huge step with portraying a minority character, she should have done her research and saw it through.

A lesser annoyance was the overexertion of the 80s theme. I would forgive the subtle hint that, yeah, this books takes place in the 80s… but it was literally EVERYWHERE. I don’t know if Rowell thought we would forget; but like from the talks of the predominant 80s bands to other 80s pop culture reference, I got so annoyed that I used to make audible gagging noises in the car with my friends as we listened to this.

Let’s Conclude This

Really, the characters are what ruined this story for me. If they had been more rounded, I might not dislike this book as much. As they are, though, I just couldn’t get into this like I wanted to. So…. Two-Creature rating, it is! Definitely check this out, though, if you’re really into quirky romance novels. You just might find it to your liking.

What book just didn’t live up to the hype for you?

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