Book Review: Eleanor & Park

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Ever since Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell was released I was very excited to pick it up. It received rave reviews and was praised by one of my favorite authors, John Green. It seemed to have everything in it I would love; quirky teenagers, the 80s, and a perfectly designed cover. After starting it, I realized it was not what I expected. I was expecting a cute teen love story, but it turned out to be much grittier that.

Eleanor & Park is a novel about two misfits who meet on a school bus. Eleanor, the new girl, lives in a difficult household- with an abusive stepfather and little money. Park, on the other hand, has an ideal family and school life. Over the course of a school year, their relationship grows as Park shows Eleanor music, and comic books, and Eleanor intrigues Park with her unusual personality. The book has gained acclaim, being named by The New York Times as one of the best young adult fiction novels of the year, and by Amazon as one of the top 10 books of the year. Rainbow Rowell tells Entertainment Weekly, “I’ve always wanted to write a first love story… You don’t belong to yourself quite yet—you still have school and your parents; you don’t even have your own space… And you also know that what you’re feeling probably won’t last. First love usually doesn’t. There’s a built-in tragedy to falling (truly) in love when you’re 16. It’s like every 16-year-old in love is either Romeo or Juliet. That is what I wanted to write about.”

I feel that this novel accurately represents life as a teenager in high school. Rainbow Rowell is an author who really understands high school students. The chapters are told from dual perspectives in each chapters, which has become a popular and sometimes tired trend in YA novels (see the Legend trilogy, Allegiant), but I really enjoyed it for this novel. Often with novels with duel perspectives I notice that authors can not make the two voices distinct. Rowell did not have this problem. The two perspectives were refreshing and unique, and it allowed the reader understand each character better by exploring their individual thought process on life and on each other.

However, I felt this book had a few flaws too. I had to get about half way through before I started enjoying the story. The characters’ voices and Rowell’s writing style took time to get used to. At times I felt the characters were too awkward. Although they had a relationship, the fact that the characters did not speak until a while int the novel was a bit strange. These characters are the definition of teenage awkwardness. As the novel went on, I began to like it more and more. I enjoy pop culture references in books, so whenever they came up it was exciting- but, I felt myself wanting more of them. The 80s were such an iconic era and I felt there were some missed opportunities and aspects of the 80s that the author could have included to make the reader feel more like they were drawn into this decade. There were times that I forgot that the novel was set in the 80s.

The novel touches on other issues such as racism, body image, and abuse. The novel gives a lot of insight into what it was like in their time period in their un-glamorous town. Rowell made the town seem very realistic by highlighting the ugly truths of life there. I thought the racism was interesting, especially because West Bloomfield High School is such a diverse school.  However, I felt at times these themes were very repetitive, and were never overcome. It was frustrating that the characters did not stand up to these issues and try to fix them. They just let them continue to happen throughout the entire novel.

Without spoiling, I will say that the novel ended very abruptly. I wish there were a few more chapters to explain the character’s motivation for why they did what they did. It is a tragic ending that will surely leave the reader with a heavy heart, especially after spending so much time in Eleanor and Park’s heads.

Overall, this book was difficult to review because of the conflicting feelings I had for the novel. I was not sure if I enjoyed it after closing the last page. This is especially true because of the high expectations I had. Now that I have had time away from it for a little while, I am glad that I read it. I think it is an important book that teenagers everywhere could relate to and should give a try.