Review: Eleanor & Park
Title: Eleanor and ParkAuthor: Rainbow RowellGenre: YA, historical fiction (kind of? It's set in the 80s so it read more like contemporary)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Two misfits.One extraordinary love.
Eleanor... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.
Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.
Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.
Just look at that innocent-looking cover. All cartoony and colorful - it made this book seem very happy and cheesy. It was also recommended to me as "definite fluff."
I think it's fair to say that while there are a lot of super cheesy and fluffy moments, the overall story is anything but. It's a story about misfits falling in love, and while the love is sweet, the misfit part means there is a lot of bullying and abuse in this book. I wasn't expecting that, which threw me for a loop, but in the end I could appreciate the story even if I didn't enjoy it, per se.
I really liked that the author used main characters that were really different from the typical protagonists of YA books. Diversity in what I read is becoming increasingly important to me, so I really appreciated that. The characters allow the author to comment on everything from body image to racial stereotypes, and while I thought one was done really well, the other still felt a little false.
Body Image: Eleanor is teased for being fat and overweight; the interesting thing is you are never actually told that she is overweight. She feels incredibly insecure, and to make matters worse, her gym uniform is striped and skin-tight. You can imagine the type of bullying she goes through. Park, being half Korean, is insecure because he feels like he looks too feminine. He is small, like his mother, and constantly feels the need to prove himself a man to his father. Rowell did a great job of portraying the characters and their insecurities with respect, while also pointing out that you don't need to look like everyone else in order to feel good about yourself. It's a powerful message that a lot of people need to hear.
Racial stereotypes: Park's mom is Korean. She's small, delicate, and beautiful - and a hair stylist. There are just so many stereotypes there already. Park is often telling himself (or Eleanor) that the things that make Asian women exotic or attractive make the men look effeminate and weak. While I understand his insecurities, especially considering his burly all-American dad, I felt like the whole discussion bought in to stereotypes and it rubbed me the wrong way. I also felt like the biracial identity discussion rang a little hollow because the author is not in fact a person of color - I feel like it's hard to create an authentic portrait of a group's struggles when you're looking at the group from the outside. (I'd be happy to discuss this with anyone who has a different take on this - it's always nice hearing other perspectives).
Back to the story itself. I felt like the ending was really abrupt and random - if that was a viable solution, why didn't it happen earlier? I liked how it didn't end in a perfect happily-ever-after though. There's enough closure to make the story seem finished, but it's not a forced cheesy ending.