This is one of the toughest books I’ve ever had to review. Eleanor and Park is a wildly popular book, but it just didn’t live up to the hype for me. There are aspects to this book that I really enjoyed, and there are chunks that just fell flat, in a big way.
Eleanor is a red-haired, voluptuous girl who dresses questionably and comes from a broken home. She gets bullied at school throughout some of the book.
Park is a black-haired, punk-loving boy who wears Converse and mostly all black. He’s Korean-American (which the author doesn’t let you forget) and comes from a loving family.
With most books, I worry about spoilers and I stay away from anything online that might give the story away. I did the same thing with Eleanor and Park, only to get to the very end of the book and realize that there wasn’t anything to give away in the first place. There isn’t a lot of story to this story. Two teens fall in love. One has a good family life, while the other doesn’t. That’s about all.
At the very beginning of the book I really did feel bad for Eleanor. Her family life is clearly sad. Her mother doesn’t seem to care about her, and her step-dad is a low-life. As for Eleanor’s real father—that whole part just seemed unfinished.
Unfortunately, I think that Rainbow Rowell tried way too hard to make Eleanor unique and quirky (a huge pet peeve of mine). I love unique characters, but only when they’re written naturally and it doesn’t feel forced—as though the writer just thought of a bunch of oh-so-quirky characteristics and tossed them altogether to make a giant quirky salad. It’s great that she made her character the opposite of the perfect, beautiful, faultless girl we often come across in books, but I don’t see why it had to be mentioned all.the.freaking.time that she’s “fat” and unattractive. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if this was a love story, or just a story about a girl who had red hair, a curvy body, looked like a scarecrow, and had a terrible sense of style. The whole thing went from ‘refreshing’ to ‘forced’ really fast for me. And I personally just think she was written so bad that it’s not even realistic. She’s described as looking like a scarecrow with eyes “almost like holes in her face.” She wears a bra held together by a safety pin, and various scarves as bracelets. Her boobs start right under her chin (uhhh?), and she doesn’t brush her teeth because she doesn’t have a toothbrush (and couldn’t bring herself to ask her counselor for one, which was just frustrating). Plus she hardly bathes. I could practically smell her as I read the book.
Moving on. Before I was half way through Eleanor and Park, I started to really dislike Eleanor as a character. I really don’t like how she was written, and I tried to look at it from various angles, but I still can’t like her. In the beginning of the novel I felt sorry for her. My stomach twisted and my heart ached for the girl. But as the story progressed, she became annoyingly difficult and reminded me way too much of Rainbow Rowell’s female character from Fangirl, Cath. She argued with everything and would make situations difficult for the sake of being difficult. Like the ending—I mean why-oh-why [spoiler]didn’t she just write Park back?[/spoiler] Park did so much for her, and she has to be all dramatic and difficult toward him? As soon as her life gets better, she tosses him aside. Ew. And in general throughout the book she just seemed to enjoy almost talking down to Park. I also didn’t like her passive behavior. At some point it would have been nice to see her be strong and stand up for something . . . anything. She just mopes around and feels bad for herself most of the time. She is not a character to look up to. She runs from everything, never confronts anyone, and never even opens up to Park about her life.
Which brings me to my next point. While Eleanor was being all difficult and refusing to open up to Park about her family life (or anything, for that matter . . . like what did he even know about her?), I’m supposed to believe he was falling in love with her? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think you can truly be in love with a person who doesn’t even trust you enough to open up to you about their life. What did he even love about her? That she liked music and comic books? That just doesn’t seem like enough to make a boy fall madly in love with a girl. I’m pretty lenient with insta-love in books, as long as they have a reason. I do think people can fall for each other pretty fast in some cases, but there’s always a reason why. There was no reason for Park to love Eleanor, other than the author wanting a story about a good-looking guy with a good family falling for a girl who looks like a scarecrow to give girls all around the world hope. Park knew next to nothing about Eleanor. She knew very little about him. Yet we get ambushed with quotes like:
“I want everyone to meet you. You’re my favorite person of all time.”
And, after knowing each other for like one month:
“I don’t like you, Park,” she said, sounding for a second like she actually meant it. “I . . . ” — her voice nearly disappeared — “think I live for you.”
Oh, and let’s not forget this little gem:
“Nothing before you counts,” he said. “And I can’t even imagine an after.”
In fairness, I think I’m too old to have read this. I don’t think I’m too old for YA (most of them are just the same as the adult books I read, really), but I think I’m too old for this particular YA novel. The love story was just too childish; I couldn’t relate. I kind of remember being in love at their age-ish, and it wasn’t like that at all. We were more laid back and not so intense. And, luckily, I never wanted to eat his face or the air he breathed. Goodness.
As far as the swearing and other controversial topics touched on in this book—I really don’t care. That stuff doesn’t offend me, and I think authors should have creative freedom to write whatever they want. Whether it offends you or not isn’t really reason enough for a writer to not express their story. And books are supposed to be believable; oftentimes that means writing about the stuff that goes on in the world that we like to turn a blind eye to. Swearing in books doesn’t bother me one bit, either. People swear in real life. I’m really not uptight enough to care about that.
The writing itself was good. Rainbow Rowell is definitely a talented writer. It’s just her female protagonists I can’t seem to like. But yes, she writes well, and I do like her often wry sense of humor. The cover of the book was also nice.
If you read Eleanor & Park, I hope you can enjoy it a lot more than I did.