Published by Orion Books Limited on 1-2-2013
Genres: Fiction, General, Love & Romance
“Bono met his wife in high school,” Park says.
“So did Jerry Lee Lewis,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be,” she says, “we’re 16.”
“What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Shallow, confused, then dead.”
“I love you,” Park says.
“Wherefore art thou,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be.”
Set over the course of one school year in 1986, Eleanor & Park is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.
Eleanor & Park is one of those books I was hearing about for months, and then couldn’t resist reading out of curiosity. I’m glad I did, because I ended up loving it.
Eleanor is the new girl. With her curly red hair and a curvy figure, Eleanor stands out to everyone on her first day on the school bus, and no one moves over to let her sit down. Eventually Park grudgingly lets her sit with him, though he’s decidedly unhappy about potentially disturbing the status quo. In 1986, Park is the only half-Korean student, and although he seems to have found his place in the social hierachy (and it isn’t at the bottom) by letting Eleanor sit down he’s risking status he doesn’t have to spare. Despite a less than amicable start, the two slowly go from pointed silences, to an unexpected friendship, and eventually a budding romance neither of them can quite understand.
“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
Eleanor & Park is told in third person, from two alternating view points; his and hers. Park is the more romantically minded of the two, whilst Eleanor is the more cynical and sarcastic. Park has a pretty normal home life: a close family, parents that are still in love with each other but a slightly difficult relationship with his dad. Eleanor on the other hand, has an awful home life. She lives with her mother, her five siblings, and her stepfather Richie. Their family doesn’t have much money, and Eleanor and Richie have an awful relationship, but Eleanor loves her siblings dearly.
“He made her feel like more than the sum of her parts.”
I loved watching the relationship between Eleanor and Park grow, fuelled by comic books and music. The pop-culture references in their relationship keep the story light and interesting, without making you feel like you needed to be an 80’s geek to keep up. I personally thought the relationship was wonderfully done. I’ve read a few reviews where people said they felt it was too sudden, but I thought it was beautifully portrayed. Rowell has captured those feelings of early love – the excitement, the nervousness, the intensity. The push and pull of those first few weeks of will-they won’t-they, the phone calls and the hundred times a day you think “I can’t wait to tell him/her about….”
“And because I’m so out of control, I can’t help myself. I’m not even mine anymore, I’m yours, and what if you decide that you don’t want me? How could you want me like I want you?”
Park was a wonderful love interest. At the beginning of the novel, he’s just like everyone else: he doesn’t want to risk becoming the next victim of bullying so that the new girl can sit down. He thinks she’s weirdly dressed and awkward, but eventually he lets her sit down. As the relationship grows, Park becomes less interested in what everyone else thinks, and more interested in Eleanor, and sharing with her things he knows she’ll love. Eleanor is very easy to relate to, with her self-confidence issues and her love for her siblings. She has feelings she can’t get her head around, and she finds it hard to articulate things romantically the way Park seems to find easy. Whilst I found it easier to connect with Eleanor, Park is ultimately the character that sold the story for me because he is, lets be honest, pretty swoon worthy.
Eleanor & Park reminded me in some ways of Pushing The Limits, but one of my biggest complaints with Pushing the Limits was the adults. I felt like they were two-dimensional, almost cartoon villains. Thankfully, this is not the case in Eleanor & Park. Although we have some awful adults, we also have some great ones to balance that out, to show that it isn’t always a case of teenagers on one side of a line and adults on the other.
The ending for me was the only tiny disappointment, because although I liked getting an ending for Eleanor and Park, I’d have liked to see more about what happened with Eleanor’s mum and Richie.
Buy it? This is definitely one that’s worth buying for me.
In a nutshell: A beautifully developed romance with fantastically interesting characters and fun pop-culture references.
I’ve read a few negative reviews of Eleanor & Park, particularly regarding Park’s race and the historical context, and while I’m not sure I necessarily agree, those reviews really made me think (try this one for an example). I absolutely loved Park as a character, but at the same time, I felt like he was labelled as ‘a misfit’ partially just so that he and Eleanor could share that. Rowell has been quoted as saying that “The neighborhood Eleanor and Park live in is the neighborhood I grew up in. And at that time, it was white and racist”. Despite that, Eleanor is the one who gets abused, because she’s bigger, she dresses unusually and she has bright red hair. Park, despite getting some ignorant comments (such as being referred to as Chinese or assuming he knows all about Kung Fu), fits in reasonably well. He’s not overly popular, but a popular girl is interested in him, he has a civilised relationship with the loud mouth on the school bus, and he wears eyeliner and reads comic books without being bullied every day. I know plenty of kids who were treated worse for dressing ‘emo’ or being a geek when I went to high school more than fifteen years later, so Park’s social stability in a time frame known for racism felt a little strange to me. In all honesty, most of the negativity towards Park’s race felt like it came from Park himself, which is a completely different issue (and one that wasn’t explored in my opinion).
I feel a little like Park’s race was treated as more of an afterthought than a relevant element of his character. That may be because Rowell didn’t want to go in depth into racism in a YA book, which is a perspective I can respect, even if I don’t necessarily agree. It may be because it is meant to be a minor part of his character, rather than the defining characteristic, which I agree it should be but this feels like a very open-minded perspective for a racist community. It may be because it’s not relevant to the plot; after all the romance is the most important element of the story (although if that’s the case, I’m not sure I understand the need to set it in 1986). It may simply be that I’m being swayed by some well written critical reviews. I’m not honestly sure, but what I do know is that if I’m being completely honest, they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story so much as change how I thought about the book after finishing. Most of these thoughts didn’t really materialise until after reading some negative reviews of Eleanor & Park, so they won’t be affecting my review rating. I still very much enjoyed the romance, the characters and the story itself; it’s just something I’ll be paying closer attention to when I re-read the book. And I admit, I have no doubt I’ll re-read the book eventually because I really enjoyed it.