Review: Eleanor & Park

I wrote this review a while back. It’s been through several revisions and may go through a few more. Some spoilers abound, so beware…

Review for “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. It’s been on all of the “Best Of” lists, everybody’s who’s anybody has reviewed it already, and its been damn near impossible to find in the libraries here for the last 2 years. So, naturally I jumped at the chance to read this when I stumbled into the YA section at my local branch and saw it sitting there. 

For everybody who doesn’t know, “Park & Eleanor” is a YA romance novel about the relationship between Eleanor, a slightly overweight girl with red hair and bad clothes whose family puts the capital D in “dysfunctional.” She lives with her mother,  young siblings, and her abusive loser of a stepfather, Rich, who terrorizes and bullies her. At the beginning of the story, the reader learns that Eleanor has been kicked out once before by Rich, and is forced by her long suffering mom to be ‘grateful’ that she has been allowed to return home. She is also bullied at school as well, for her weight and her appearance. Park is a half white, half Korean teen who gets stuck sitting on the bus next to Eleanor and eventually strikes up a friendship with her. From there, the friendship turns into romance. 

Let me start with what I did like first. I loved the music and pop culture references of this book. I’m a total 80’s baby, and all throughout are constant references to bands like The Smiths and Joy Division and other awesome music that I grew up listening to. I loved the references to TV shows like “Solid Gold” (GTFOH–now who remembers “Solid Gold?” I do!) and Walkmans and cassette tapes that were so full of WIN that I wanted to grab this book and never let it go. I’ll take a trip down 80’s memory lane any day. Whew!

Now on to what I didn’t like. The issue of race was kind of, well, strange in this book. Too strange. Park’s mother is Korean, his father is white, and they live smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Nebraska in the 1980’s. Other than one reference by a classmate referring to Park as Chinese (you know, the “all Asians are Chinese” bullshit), there is never an instance where Park seems to encounter racism, among his peers or anyone else. And other than taekwondo lessons, Park seems to be almost oblivious to his Korean roots. Even his mother struck me as the “whitest” Korean lady I’ve ever read about. Why is Park’s Korean heritage completely whitewashed here? Or is it that Rainbow Rowell knows nothing about Korean culture, so she chose to exclude any thoughtful analysis of it here? One cannot simply say that Park does not encounter racism, or that race is not an issue in this book. If race is a non factor, it would seem that Ms. Rowell would have left this character as Caucasian and went along with the story. However, the added dimension of race is here, and it’s completely devoid of any meaningful commentary. Perhaps the reason why Park’s Asian-ness is in this book is to create a kind of fetishism, which Eleanor’s descriptions of Park completely fall into. She constantly describes the shape of his eyes (“almondy”) and his skin color (“honey”). And she refers to Park as “that stupid Asian kid” in the beginning far too much for my liking, to the point where it made me uncomfortable.

That’s not it either. Eleanor also has two black friends at school, DeNice and Beebi (WTF kinds of names are those?) and man…they are space cadets. They’re ridiculously immature, almost caricature-like, giggling and constantly beginning sentences with “girl,” obsessing over the men in their lives and going out dancing. As a black woman, I found their characterization so fucking ludicrous that I had to laugh whenever they appeared. Is this really what Ms. Rowell thinks young black girls are like? Come on.

Park and Eleanor’s romance is cute, but it seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s literally like one day they hate each other (to Eleanor he’s the “stupid Asian kid”) and the next they are all over each other. Really? And why does Park like Eleanor anyway? Park’s attraction to her made little sense to me. Emotionally, he gets very little from her. We know she holds back because she is abused at home and psychologically damaged, but the characterization of Park as one who continues to radiate nothing but pure goodness in the face of her nonchalance (often to the detriment of himself) was quite unbelievable to me. Park IS in love with Eleanor, but it’s a blind, self-sacrificing, stupid kind of love and as a reader I knew it wouldn’t  last. I know I’m in the minority when I say that I was glad that it ended the way it did, ’cause good ‘ol Park was gonna run himself mad over this poor gal…

Logistically, this book dragged in the middle and I found myself skipping pages. The back and forth narration was cool at first, but after a while got confusing, because both Park and Eleanor’s voices pretty much sounded the same anyway. I wouldn’t rule out any of Rowell’s books in the future, but this one was a flat 3 stars, no more, no less.

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