Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, 336 pages
Banned Books Week is coming up, September 25 – October 1. In past years, I’ve found a banned or challenged book that I hadn’t yet read and read it that week. This year, I’ve already got a few books going (here’s looking at you, Alexander Hamilton — I’ll finish you one day!) and have too much going on to start something new. So, I asked myself, what other ways can I celebrate? Looking at my log of book-reviews-to-post, I remembered Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park had, at the very least, been challenged. While I admit I find bits of the novel problematic myself (though the bits I find problematic are not the bits the parents found problematic), I proudly uphold the ethics of my profession and engage with the material, anyway, careful to read and think about it critically as we should with any material, not just those around which controversy swirls. This isn’t to say you can’t read a book for fun — certainly, you can, just as you can enjoy Miley Cyrus’s latest song while criticizing her for cultural appropriation. But regardless of the intent you hold when reading, remember to read responsibly, my friends. Without further ado, I therefore offer my review of a problematic fave, Eleanor and Park. (Okay, a bit of ado — read banned books! Happy Banned Books Week!)
If you know anything about young adult fiction, you’ve probably at least heard of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. I finally got around to this one several months ago and, like Fangirl, Eleanor and Park is hyper-realistic and features a rich teen romance between its two title characters. It’s unlike many of the more superficial teen romances I’ve read and that much, I enjoyed.
I’ll be up front, though, and tell you there’s a fair bit of racism in the book, something on which I’ll leave to those in the Asian community to discuss. I’ll only say the fetishization of Park as an (half-)Asian came up again and again, among other issues of the stereotyping and internalized racism variety. I get the sense that this racism came out of a place of ignorance rather than malicious intent, but it’s still an aspect of the novel that must be considered by its readers and discussed in a broader context. That’s all I have to say about that and I highly encourage you to seek out comments from individuals affected by this racism rather than relying on my very brief and inherently ignorant and white-influenced thoughts on the matter, whether you read the book or not.
Onward to things I do have some authority on. To take a step back, Eleanor and Park is about two high school students in Nebraska. When Eleanor returns to her home after some time away, she also returns to school and is quickly singled out as someone to be avoided. However, seats on the school bus are limited and Eleanor ends up sitting with Park, who loves comic books. As Eleanor and Park slowly share their love of music and comic books in 1980s Omaha, they discover their feelings for each other. But Eleanor’s home life proves to be a huge stumbling block that neither are quite ready to take on.
Rowell takes a good, hard look at difficult home situations involving abuse and poverty. As a result of taking these issues seriously and recognizing there are real teens with these real experiences, Rowell avoids “writing down” to her audience. It is this, in part, that makes Eleanor and Park an excellent read for not only teens, but adults, too, who may not expect to enjoy young adult fiction (but are missing out!). Additionally interesting, Eleanor is very clearly affected by her environment. Eleanor is not a good or nice person most of the time. She makes bad decisions and is often unlikable, but the reader is reminded that Eleanor is doing what she must to survive emotionally and mentally. This added layer of realism is striking and not one I see done well in most young adult fiction.
Another thing done well that is usually a disaster was the switch in point of view. I have this written in my notes as an aspect to discuss, but frankly, it was done so well that I had forgotten that it was even a thing. Switching points of view, even when the entire book is in third person, is one of my book pet peeves. Given that it didn’t bother me in Eleanor and Park, I’m inclined to take that as a hint that it was done well.
One other small thing – the book begins with a sort of whispy prologue in the form of an epilogue that I felt wasn’t truly necessary. While it offered a good deal of foreshadowing and set readers up to prepare themselves for a potentially sad ending, I don’t feel that it really added anything to the book or the experience of it. I see it as a way for Rowell to get two shots at the ending – while the official ending is beautiful, it does leave a little something to be desired, which ends up being found in the prologue. Had the prologue been somehow referred to in a grander way in the official end, pulling the book to a full circle, I might have appreciated it more. As it is, I could have done without it.
If you’re prepared to critically consider the racism in Eleanor and Park, the remaining elements of the novel are really pretty good. I did dock my rating below because of that racism, but I also don’t think it’s fair to discount the quality of prose and other elements because of what appears to be genuine ignorance and a lack of research and consultation. With the many criticisms out there on Eleanor and Park, I hope Rowell will take that feedback to make future work better while maintaining her otherwise well-done material.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤