Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

  • Title: Eleanor and Park
  • Author: Rainbow Rowell
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1250012570
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 336
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor book; more here.

Author information: Rainbow Rowell is the author of two other novels besides Eleanor and Park as well as a new forthcoming novel to be released in July 2014. Her website’s homepage includes new blog posts, her Twitter feed, and recent news. Her website also includes links to information about each of her books, her biography, a list of upcoming events, and praise for her works. In one of her blog posts, she addresses a frequent question she gets in regard to Eleanor’s weight, and discusses that Eleanor is “fat”, but that this doesn’t mean that Park can’t find her attractive. She says, “Park thinks Eleanor is beautiful. He loves her for who she is on the inside, and he loves her for who she is on the outside. He wants to kiss her. He wants to have sex with her. And it isn’t because he’s brave and deep — it’s because he’s attracted to her”.

Reviews: Booklist and Kirkus gave this title starred reviews and School Library Journal also gave it a favorable review. All of these sources applaud Rowell’s use of dual narrative and the multi-dimensional nature of the characters. John Green gave a glowing review of this book in the New York Times, saying that “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book”. He also talks about the strength of Eleanor and Park’s relationship in spite of the obstacles they face, and how Rowell presents an authentic look at young love.

Readers annotation: Eleanor and Park could not be more different, but that doesn’t stop them from falling in love. Can they stay together when it seems the world wants them apart?

Summary: Eleanor is the new kid at school who dresses funny and is overweight. Park is Korean-American whose father has lived in the town his entire life, but met his mother while serving in Korea and brought her back with him. They meet one day on the bus, when Park reluctantly lets Eleanor sit next to him. Gradually they become friends; Park lends her comic books to read and makes her mix tapes. They start to date, but their different social and economic circles proves challenging. Eleanor’s stepfather is an abusive alcoholic and Eleanor lives in constant fear of him in her unsafe home. Park is preoccupied with what people at school think and doesn’t understand why Eleanor gets mad at him or cuts him off for seemingly no reason. They persevere with their relationship and fall deeper in love, but things reach an intolerable point when Eleanor’s stepfather destroys her personal belongings and writes a foul message to her, causing her to realize that he’s been her invisible tormentor throughout the school year. She understands that she has to get out of her home and go somewhere safe, so Park, with the approval of his family, drives her to her uncle’s home. The distance between them proves painful and Eleanor cuts off contact with Park for a year, but the end of the novel ends on a hopeful note, with Park receiving his first postcard from Eleanor since she left.

Evaluation: One difficulty I had with reading this book is that I had read quite a bit about it before I read the book itself, which I think colored my approach to the book. With that being disclosed, I thought the book did a good job creating two characters who were flawed and had a lot of uncertainties and showing how these two characters developed a relationship in spite of (or because of) these imperfections. Rowell portrays Eleanor’s home situation in a stark and heartbreaking fashion, allowing the reader to understand what is going on with her on a personal level, making her bullying at school that much more tragic. The dual narrative perspectives allow the readers to get a glimpse inside both lovers’ heads and have a better understanding of what each character is feeling and why, and the prose of the novel is witty and sharp while also being brutally honest. The major fault I found in this novel was its portrayal of minority characters. I think Rowell does a good job addressing the racism that minorities in this town are subjected to as well as the complicated identity and self-esteem issues that Park has as a result of them, but many of her minority characters fall flat. The two black students who hang out with Eleanor seem like they are only there so Rowell can have black characters, and their potential is thrown away–the only dialogue we hear them speak is when they talk about boys or the stupid white bitches at the school. Park’s mom also toes the line between character and caricature due to her broken English, her job as a stylist, and the fact that her husband brought her from Korea. In spite of this, the book resonates as an honest story about young love and the terrible obstacles some teenagers have to face in their lives.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5 The writing is elegant, the main characters are believable and likable, and the situations the characters face are horrifying yet not outside of the realm of possibility of things a teenager might have to face. Some of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped, but the strength of the plot and the endearing nature of Park and Eleanor and their love story is enough to carry this novel.
  • Popularity: 4/5 This novel doesn’t feel like a traditional love story because of the heavy issues that Eleanor has to deal with at home, so it will appeal to readers of the romance genre as well as those who don’t typically read romance books. Both protagonists are smart and their voices are sympathetic and keep the reader engaged with what happens to them, and the story of Eleanor’s home life will appeal to more serious readers. This book may not find a wide audience in the male population, but male readers who are sensitive and open to reading different perspectives will find much to enjoy.
  • Appeal factors: witty protagonists, dual narration, romance, family issues and abuse.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Again, I would recommend John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars for readers who enjoyed Eleanor and Park’s witty voices and unconventional love story. Both romantic pairs have to deal with falling and staying in love when life throws terrible obstacles in their paths. For Eleanor and Park, this is familial abuse. For Hazel and Augustus, this obstacle is cancer.
  2. For readers who want another title that deals with difficult home situations, alcohol abuse, and questions of self-esteem and identity, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both books feature dark humor, and Alexie’s protagonist, Arnold Spirit, deals with the similar feelings of helplessness and self-loathing that Eleanor experiences.

Book talk ideas: This book is rife with good quotes, so start with a piece of dialogue to pique readers’ interest, possibly the conversation about high school love lasting that mentions Romeo and Juliet and Bon Jovi. Talk about how different these characters are but how they fall in love with each other anyway, and talk about the struggles Eleanor faces both at school with bullies and at home with her stepfather. 

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What role does Eleanor’s mother play in her life? Why doesn’t she try to protect her children?
  2. Was the love story between Eleanor and Park believable? Why or why not?
  3. How did you feel about the portrayal of Park’s mother? Did you think she was a strong character or did she fall flat?
  4. Park has a difficult relationship with his dad. Why do you think this is?
  5. What role does music play in this novel? Did setting it in the 1980s and using 1980s music enhance the book? If so, how?
  6. Were you satisfied with the ending? What did you think the postcard said? What do you think happens next?

Reason for reading: I’m actually using this book in a teen book club at the library this summer, so reading it served a dual purpose both for this class and for my work. I chose this book for the book club because of its popularity; I felt that this selection may encourage teens to read it because they had heard so much about it from friends, and those who have already read it may attend so they can talk about how they felt. I am worried that we won’t have a large number of males attend due to the nature of the book, but I do think that our teen base includes some thoughtful young men who would be willing to step out of their comfort zone and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that.

Additional relevant information: When researching books to choose for my teen book club this summer, I read quite a few reviews about the portrayal of race in the novel. Bloggers at Respiring Thoughts and Clear Eyes, Full Shelves gave thoughtful commentary on this subject, focusing both on the casual racism of Eleanor and other white characters as well as the deeper problems associated with the portrayal of Park and his family. I had read these reviews prior to reading the novel and they definitely impacted how I read the book and my opinions of it, and I think they raise some valid points about how flawed the examination of race is in this book.

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