Title: Eleanor and Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Rating: 2.5 Stars
I sincerely hope no diabetic patients read this novel. Seriously. Eleanor and Park is almost a sickly-sweet kind of romance. I could feel myself cringing at the utter delight of it all: the gentle Asian boy, the big red-headed girl who didn’t fit in, the slow hand-holding, the chaste kisses, the Star Wars compliments, the cradle-the-phone-in-the-night discussions, the endless question-and-answer sessions, and most of all, the improbable romance of a poor girl who doesn’t even have a toothbrush and the rich boy who has a room full of model airplanes and cassette tapes. Nevertheless, despite the clichés in this novel and the almost dream-like quality of the story itself, I found myself hard pressed to dislike this story. Eleanor and Park is most definitely a love story I’m going to forget within a few hours, but somehow Rainbow Rowell is an author I’m not.
If you haven’t already figured it out, this is the type of novel that depicts what an almost perfect romance is like. Almost perfect because despite the cheesiness of the dialogue and the cloying sweet quality of the scenes in this, Eleanor and Park are both flawed and realistic characters; to some extent. I found Rowell’s depiction of Eleanor, in particular, to be gratifying. Not only is she “Big Red,” the girl who stands out from the crowd because of her bright hair and big-boned body, but she’s also the girl who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, who’s stunningly intelligent, and whose sarcasm and wit manages to utterly charm Park. Furthermore, her family situation – abusive stepdad, single mom with five children – makes her all the more complicated. Some of my favorite scenes took place when Eleanor was upset, too shaken to speak about her family or simply too embarrassed to discuss her situation and background. Just the fact that she, with her mood swings and clipped tones and limited discussion about her own life, caused a few prickly thorns to spring up in her relationship with Park was more than enough to add an extra layer to their nerdmance.
On the other hand, Park is a little too opposite Eleanor for my liking. First and foremost, he is really sweet, slowly developing his relationship with Eleanor from silence to comics to music and inviting her over to his house practically every day. Park struggles, for awhile, to accept Eleanor - all of her - especially because he so wants his parents’ approval of his first real girlfriend and somehow isn’t brave enough to fight for her completely. Thus, his progression as an individual was well-written, as was his complicated relationship with his father. I feel like father-son relationships are too easily dismissed in favor of mother-daughter relationships, but I do think that the former is just as important as the latter. Needless to say, I was impressed by the complicated, but affectionate, stance Rowell took in portraying their bond.
Nevertheless, Park is a little too perfect for my liking. Although he is an Asian – and feels insecure about that – there is no denying that females are clamoring for his attention. Park walks into a music store and the girl behind the counter is totally into him. His ex-girlfriend from when he was twelve is still, somehow, after his affections. And yet he feels like girls don’t like Asian boys. I do think his insecurities are valid, but I never was able to connect with him on the same level as I was with Eleanor. Moreover, his family is just too perfect. His father comes home from work and makes out with his mother, irrespective of the fact that they have two sons, have been married for years, and will likely have time to do all that – and more – behind closed doors. Eleanor, on the other hand, has a father who abandoned her, a stepdad who abuses her mother, four other younger siblings, and can’t even afford a toothbrush. If you had to pick two lives to place on opposite ends of a spectrum, these are it. And I guess Rowell was trying – as most authors of romance are – that love can bloom among even the unlikeliest of couples, but it seemed all too forced and purposeful for me to appreciate.
Yet, my main issue with this novel was with Park’s mother. We have a Korean bride who marries an American solider and comes home to live with him right next door to his Irish parents. But, despite this, there is not a drop of Korean culture in Park’s life. No Korean food, no Korean language, not even a mention of his mother’s family back in
Korea until much later in the
novel. I’m all for diversity in YA, but simply introducing an Asian character
for the sake of having an Asian character, especially without the messy dilemma
that dual-culture brings into the picture, grates on me. I’m an Asian myself
and I live in a community where 75% of my neighbors are Asian. Indian, Chinese,
Korean, Filipino, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Pakistani…you name it. We’re here. And
I get that Eleanor and Park takes place in a different time
period, but this Asian audience that Rowell is trying to reach? We
exist. Also? We’d like to be represented in YA. Accurately. For one,
the majority of Asians I know – myself included – have very close ties to their
family members overseas. Maybe there isn’t international phone calling by this
time in history – I don’t know – but wouldn’t Park’s mom try to ensure that her
children knew about her background? Doesn’t she know any traditional Korean
dishes? I find it so difficult to believe that she simply left behind
everything, including her own Korean culture and beliefs, to
assimilate to American life. With the exception of her accent, you’d never even
know she wasn’t born and bred in America. And for an Asian
character, that just isn’t right.
For all of that, though, there’s something about Eleanor and Park that makes it hard to put down. Impossible, really. I enjoyed reading about Eleanor and Park’s relationship, no matter how clichéd it was. I loved seeing Eleanor battle her demons, inner and outer, and seeing Park help her. Is their romance too good to be true? Yes. Are their declarations of love, of missing each other over weekends, etc. just a little too my-eyes-are-tired-of-rolling? Yes. I won’t deny that this book has its flaws – plenty of them – but every once-in-awhile, I found myself forgetting about them and just enjoying this fairy-tale romance. And, either way, I will definitely be getting my hands on Attachments soon because, no matter what I’ve said, Rainbow Rowell can write.