The short: 3/5 ✦. An outstanding, well-written, heart-wrenching book that is unfortunately marred by cultural and historical issues.
This is the best review I’ve seen for Eleanor & Park:
Nobody should write for teens who doesn’t remember what it was like to be one. Rainbow Rowell remembers, and has captured it beautifully in this book.
And that’s absolutely true. Especially if you were fat. Especially if you were a girl. Especially if you were sheltered or came from a difficult home. Especially if you were shy and awkward and preferred reading books and watching movies to partying and drinking and drugs and sex.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.
My school was small and Christian, and though I’m fairly sure sex and drugs were being freely exchanged somewhere, it wasn’t something that affected me or my friends, and I never felt that particular pressure.
But I know that feeling of “taking up too much space and being invisible all at once.” How other people hated me at first sight, even when I hadn’t done anything wrong except be fat and ugly. Luckily, I was never outright bullied, and I had wonderful friends and great teachers. I know how fortunate I was in that regard.
Though I’ve built up my confidence since that time (thank goodness), I’m still awkward in relationships, having kinda missed the dating boat in high school. I laughed when Eleanor refused to sit on Park’s bed for fear of . . . something. You can’t say it, because that would make it a potential reality, and you both really want it and are terrified about it at the same time. And her self-doubt about her appearance in regards to being attractive could’ve been ripped from my own brain. You can’t imagine why someone would like you more than a friend, why every stretch mark and hunk of chub isn’t an instant turnoff.
We as readers had the benefit of Park’s POV, knowing his interest in Eleanor was genuine. In real life, we’re not that lucky, but I think Rowell still captured that uncertainty and fear of being in a relationship perfectly.
Was the romance a little sappy? Sure, but it wasn’t instalove, either, which I was eternally grateful for. It was nicely paced before going off with a romantic bang, and then you’re just so happy that they’re happy, you don’t care about cheesy lines like how much Eleanor wanted to eat Park’s face (for real, though, when you really like someone, you do want to consume every bit of them, so make of that what you will). Also, though the blurb advertises that they’re both misfits, I never got that impression from Park, who seemed to just be going with the flow since no one bothered him about anything. Eleanor, of course, got the short end of the stick in the social food chain.
The ending, though worth throwing the book at the wall, was better than the alternatives I kept predicting. I’ve read too many books like this with dark endings, and I much preferred the ambiguity than what could’ve happened. The penultimate scenes were predictable, but probably intentionally so, given the lead-up. Eleanor lives in one of the most broken of broken homes, so it was only a matter of time before everything went straight into the toilet, though again, I’m glad it didn’t end up where I thought it might. Thank goodness for enemies.
These are all the positive things. These are made me laugh and curse and have feels. These are what made me stay up late to finish reading. These are what normally would’ve warranted a 4-star rating.
But there was too much racism.
Honestly, when I first started reading the reviews for this book, I didn’t quite see why so many people were complaining about the racism, or rather, the lack of it. Park is half-Korean and faces hardly any prejudice about it. I was admittedly bothered by Eleanor’s “Stupid Asian kid” remarks, but the time period and setting (1980s, small town Nebraska) insisted that was just the norm back then (which I now realize is an explanation, not an excuse). The black majority is referenced, but again, no direct slurs are made despite white authority domination. Clothes and beauty and status are more important than ethnic background. As someone who is also biracial (but white-passing), this didn’t strike me as unusual. Everybody’s experience is different. But there are people who can’t go through a single day without being verbally tortured or socially abused simply due to their race, and to have Park’s conflict over his own heritage mostly glossed over is offensive. Also, his mother is basically a stereotype, there are unfortunate implications with her white military husband, and nothing positive about them being Korean is shown. Park’s family is the perfect nuclear American family, which is nice on the surface, but the racist core can’t be ignored. It’s more like Rowell made an assumption that this is what it’s like being biracial and didn’t bother actually doing research about it. I don’t know if that’s true, but I did read that Rowell was open to, and appreciative of, constructive criticism on this topic, which is nice to hear. As I’m not half-Korean and also white-passing, I’m not really qualified to discuss the racist aspects of this book much more than this. Here is a more detailed criticism of Eleanor & Park.
All that being said, would I recommend it? Yes, but with a caveat. This book is racist, pure and simple. It also has a fat girl protagonist and features themes on abuse, sex, and homophobia. The good is there with the bad, and I like to think we can enjoy certain types of media even while being critical about it. If anything, Eleanor & Park proves how important it is to have books about people of color written by people of color, for both diversity and accuracy’s sake. It proves that the 1980s wasn’t completely a rockin’ time, and that today in 2015, we’ve still got a long way to go.
Header image: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, published February 26th 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin.