Today, we're reviewing Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park. We've heard a lot of raves about the book, and were excited to read it. However, we have to confess: it wasn't quite to our tastes.
Our Contemporary Thursday series is where we review YA contemporary books which have come out recently. While the majority of our books will be upcoming releases, we may occasionally also review books that we're only recently discovering!
Hardcover, 325 pages
Published February 26th 2013 by St. Martin's Press
Format read: Hardcover (owned)
After reading all of the positive reviews from friends and trusted sources, I have to admit: I like a complete grinch for only giving Eleanor and Park three stars.
So let me preface my review by saying: I was going through a bit of a funk when I read Eleanor and Park, and I think that the content of the book was a little too bleak for my state of mind. Some of the plot lines just didn’t mesh well for me.
It’s fully possible that I may reread the book a year from now and change my mind, but for now, I’ll have to stick with three stars.
It’s 1986, and Eleanor and Park are both considered misfits in their small Nebraskan town.
Eleanor, with her too-red hair, dysfunctional family and eclectic fashion sense, sticks out like a sore thumb. Though the half-Asian Park fares a little better on the popularity scale, he still struggles to find his place in the world.
Through a pure twist of fate, they meet, bond over comics and mixed tapes, and fall madly in love. Though they are desperate to stay together, they may be forced apart due to circumstances beyond their control.
Things that worked:
* The writing
There’s no doubt in my mind that Rowell’s an exceptional writer. It’s evident in every facet of the book.
From the very first page of the book, I was struck with how rich and detailed her world building and descriptions were. I had no problems picturing everything that she was describing – from her initial physical descriptions of Eleanor and Park, to the bigger (and smaller) details about their day-to-day lives.
Even her dialogue flowed smoothly and naturally. From the way the characters communicated with each other, you would never get the sense that she likely went through multiple drafts, before getting to the final product that we read.
Rowell definitely has a gift of drawing readers in, to the point where we feel fully immersed in her world.
* The plotting
For a book that primarily focuses on the development of the relationship between two specific individuals, Eleanor and Park is exceptionally well-plotted.
Like YA favorite John Green, Rowell has a gift of making simple day-to-day occurrences – whether it’s Park making a mixed-tape for Eleanor, or Eleanor feeling happy that she’s in a house with a full fridge for the first time – seem huge, and extraordinary.
Even though the book is very relationship-centric, at no point did I feel bored or distracted from trying to find out how the relationship between Eleanor and Park would develop.
* The characterizations
Rowell makes the decision to alternate between Eleanor and Park’s perspectives – a writing style that seems to becoming more and more common for YA books these days.
(See Revis, Beth and Banks, Anna for two other authors who utilize a similar technique).
I was slightly wary at first, when I realized that this was how the book would unfold. I’ve read books with similar narration techniques, where I honestly couldn’t tell both narrators apart.
However, this definitely wasn’t a problem for Rowell. She peppers Eleanor and Park with such distinctive voices and personality traits, that I had no trouble telling who was who, and honestly believing that I was seeing their story unfold from two different pairs of eyes.
* The diversity
One of my favorite parts about Eleanor and Park was the diversity. Rowell does an excellent job of creating a believable, mixed-race main character, whose struggles and attempts to fit into his not-very-diverse town was intelligent, and fun to read.
Bravo to Rowell for creating Park and his quirky family – and for also not making a big deal out of the fact that Park’s mom was Korean - and I do hope that other YA authors will follow in her footsteps in the future.
I also loved the fact that the two African-American girls basically adopted Eleanor, making her feel less alone and isolated at school.
Things that didn’t work (for me):
WARNING: Spoilers abound! Read on at your own risk!
* The ending
I knew from the get-go that Eleanor and Park wouldn’t have the ending that we wanted. It’s not true to real life, and Eleanor’s life was far too difficult for that type of happily-ever-after to be truly feasible.
However, I still felt disappointed by Rowell’s decision to have Eleanor leave, without reaching out to Park in a meaningful, extensive sort of way. It made the ending feel unfinished, and it really devalued their so-called declarations of love for one another.
I was also bothered by the fact that there wasn’t really any sort of resolution for the situation with Eleanor’s stepfather.
Yes, I realize that this was a different time and people didn’t necessarily have the resources that we have now for situations like what Eleanor experienced. But I also didn’t like how Rowell brought up a fairly serious issue, and sort of just hand-waved it away. YMMV, of course.
On that note…
* The serious issues
A lot of fairly serious issues are discussed in the course of Eleanor and Park, from bullying, to domestic violence, to child abuse, etc.
While I absolutely appreciate Rowell’s attempts to highlight these issues for the YA community, I also felt like they were never really discussed or presented in a substantive sort of way. There was no attempt to resolve them, conquer them, etc.
In many ways, I felt like these issues were just used to drive Eleanor and Park toward each other, and further fuel their romance – which honestly, kind of bothered me.
Yes, this is Rowell’s book, and I completely believe that she’s free to do whatever she wants with her work. However, I also think that if you are going to talk about very real-world issues… they shouldn’t be used as strictly a plot point. YMMV.
On that note…
* The relationship or “the relationship”
Emily May from Goodreads said it far more succinctly and intelligently in her review, but I was slightly bothered by the fact that Eleanor and Park’s relationship seemed to be built on a foundation of bullying and domestic violence.
Without giving too many spoilers away, a lot of their angst and longing for each other felt like it evolved from a place where Eleanor largely saw Park as her savior, and Park saw her as someone who needed to be saved.
There wasn’t any hint of the equal footing or balance that I think exists in a healthy relationship or a genuine relationship, so I was put off by the book’s insistence that this will remind me of my first love. Nope. Sorry.
Final verdict: I can see why people find this book charming and sweet, but it wasn’t for me.
Rowell has fantastic talent, beautiful characterization, and nice world-building, and I would recommend this book for people who enjoy quirky YA contemporary books.