Eleanor and Park is an adorable romance. Eleanor is new in town and has just been welcomed back into her family after being kicked out by her creepy step-dad a year earlier. Park has a fairly decent spot on the social ladder in the school bus and isn’t prepared to lose any of his privileges of being not hassled. But Eleanor has to sit somewhere. And Park isn’t completely heartless…. so he swears at her and lets her sit down, just to keep it balanced. It all starts with the comic books. He realizes that she’s reading them over his shoulder. Then she realizes he’s waiting for her at the end of each page. With tiny steps like these, Eleanor and Park slowly fall in love.
When I was reading this, I felt so mushy and happy about the characters. I love the way Rowell alternates both of their perspectives so that you see both Eleanor and Park as they see themselves, and as they see each other. Sometimes it’s the things they say to each other that are cute and sweet, but more often it’s the things that stay unsaid.
The novel is in third person, so you still only get to hear Eleanor’s thoughts in the Eleanor parts and Park’s thoughts in the Park parts. This does create a bit of distance from the characters in some ways but I think it works because it leaves room to wonder about what isn’t explicitly stated – for example why is Eleanor so scared of her step-dad? We know what he does to her mother but what does she think he’s going to do to her? You have to read between the lines. There also seem to be constant ominous hints of something bad happening. I got quite worried early in the book when there’s a discussion about Romeo and Juliet in their English class that there was going to be an awful ending… it turns out that maybe I was just reading too much between the lines (as in no, there was not a tragic double suicide situation but that’s all I’ll say). I like it when not everything is clear cut and you’re kept guessing about at least some things.
One thing that I really liked about this novel was that the characters felt real. For starters, Eleanor is first described to us as fat, and we get this idea reinforced from both her perspective and Park’s. As well as this she wears unusual clothes and just seems to be a bit of a mess. Now, I know this is maybe a strange thing to like about a novel, but I have often wondered what would happen if for once, a girl in a novel was in some way ugly. Not just a girl who thinks she’s ugly, but who is in fact nowhere close to the traditional archetype of beauty that we are constantly fed in books and movies and media in general. In the real world there are people who don’t fit the mold that society requires so it’s nice to have a book that reflects this rather than just people insecure about their appearance who are actually pretty (I’m thinking vaguely of Tris, Bella, Katniss….). One of my favourite quotes from the novel is about Eleanor’s appearance:
“Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”
I think this is the most beautiful description of a character I can think of. It also gives you an idea of the kind of adorableness that this novel is made up of!
As well as this, Park is slightly more alternative in his appearance and unaware that people like Eleanor actually find him attractive. Aside from all of this there is a gritty reality that Eleanor lives in, which is in constant comparison to Park’s more comfortable living situation. It might not be a really unusual thing for novels to depict, but it adds to the feeling of authenticity that I admired in this novel.
On that note, there are a few things that I’ve heard pointed out by other readers that seem inconsistent in terms of historical accuracy. The novel opens in ‘August, 1986’ but if you think too hard about the timeline of American history around that time you might be annoyed by a few details; such as when Park’s dad would have been stationed in Korea where he apparently met Park’s mum, and how Park is treated. I hadn’t thought about any of these things until I read this blog post by Laura from Clear Eyes Full Shelves. If you’re interested in reading more about these criticisms I found it a really interesting perspective on the book. The only thing that did jar with me was that in the first few pages of the novel I found it hard to buy in with the world of the 80’s school bus – I’m not sure why but it took a little while to get past the almost jargon like references. I really enjoyed all the pop culture references throughout the novel but I found they were distracting in those first few pages where it seems the only purpose is to authenticate the eighties setting.
This is the first book by Rainbow Rowell that I’ve read, and so far I think she is a good writer. I can allow there are some issues that can be found with the authenticity of her representation of a few aspects in the novel, but overall I enjoyed being able to lose myself in a story. If you’re the kind of person who can’t enjoy a story if it’s got any plausibility issues then maybe Eleanor and Park is not for you. It’s a fluffy read but one that could be used to start discussion on some deeper topics. Interesting to note that it has a ‘Not Suitable for Younger Readers’ label on the back. I appreciate this; I actually think I have read other books that are YA which are less suitable and not flagged as such! But it had definitely got some adult themes in it which people should be aware of.
Overall rating from me 4/5, (there’s a bonus point in there for cute factor).
Buy Eleanor & Park from Amazon.