Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

I have thought about Eleanor and Park everyday since I read it two months ago.

That’s not a compliment.

In some respects, my attitude is perhaps not terribly fair because a particular aspect of Eleanor and Park elicited a visceral reaction from me that is personal to me, a reaction that a lot of people would not have or understand.

But as I’ve thought about the novel over the past two months, mulling over the possibility that I was perhaps being too sensitive, that the possibility of my being too sensitive was unfairly impacting my view of the rest of the book, and the book as a whole, my final analysis has always been the same: I don’t believe this book.

I don’t believe the historical context.

I don’t believe the characters.

I don’t believe the romance.

Let’s start with the first issue, the historical context.

Eleanor and Park is framed as a historical novel, taking place in Omaha, Nebraska, the author Rainbow Rowell’s hometown, in 1986. Our titular 16-year-old characters meet on the school bus when Park grudgingly allows new kid Eleanor to share his seat. 

Park is half-Korean, his parents having met and married in South Korea, where his father was stationed as a member of the army. Hmmmmm. Okay, so they met around 1968? 1969? I have to assume it was no later than 1969 since as a sixteen year old in 1986, Park would have to have been born in 1970. So...during the height of the Vietnam War, when a draft was in place to send as many young men as possible into the fray, Park’s father, an able-bodied member of the U.S. military was...stationed at an army base in Korea. Possible, I suppose, but still a bit ludicrous to me.

Ok, so then his parents get married and move to his father’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska where Park is raised and, according to Park, the good people of Omaha,

“...couldn’t call him a freak or a [anti-Asian slur] or a [homosexual slur], because—well, first, because his dad was a giant and a veteran and from the neighborhood.”

Let me get this straight. 

Park’s interracial family faces minimal racial prejudice in the midwestern United States, an area known for lacking in diversity, during the 1970s and 1980s. Park’s Korean mother and Caucasian father married and lived happily with their biracial children, facing little racism in Omaha, Nebraska starting in 1970, less than 30 years after United States citizens of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps during World War II, less than twenty years after the Korean War took 36,516 American lives, only seven years after interracial marriage was legalized in the state of Nebraska, only three years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all other anti-miscegenation laws throughout the country via their Loving v. Virginia decision, only two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and smack-dab in the middle of the controversial Vietnam war, which made villains out of members of the military who served in it upon their stateside returns and caused a swell of anti-Asian sentiment throughout the country.

I call bullshit.

Furthermore, while a version of racism does appear in the novel in the form of bad kung-fu jokes and “You are Asian therefore you must be Chinese” assumptions, it seems deliberately placed within the historical framework. As Rainbow Rowell stated in a Publisher’s Weekly interview,

“The neighborhood Eleanor and Park live in is the neighborhood I grew up in. And at that time, it was white and racist.”

Therefore, the author was attempting to portray racism as it was, as if that racism is limited to that time frame. Unfortunately, as I discussed at length during our first podcast, that 1986 version of racism is alive and well in 2013, and I seriously resent the placement of it in a historical novel as if it no longer exists today. 

So, while Eleanor and Park was conveniently accurate as far as pop culture, cutely peppered with nostalgia-inducing references of many 80s bands and comic books, I found the historical context extremely shallow and unconvincing. In addition to being devoid of so many of the broader, deeper societal issues of the time, the context also wrongly and paradoxically relegated issues that still gnaw at the framework of our current society to history.

Moving on the the characters: I never deeply connected to either of them, despite having much in common with both of the main characters.

While the third person past tense POV that switched from Eleanor and Park’s perspectives throughout the novel made sense for the story, it also seemed to create a barrier that did not allow me to experience what the characters were going through or how they felt with immediacy or intensity. Considering how much I could relate both of the characters, the disconnect struck me as especially odd.

I know what it’s like to be relentlessly bullied in school for weeks, months on end. I know what it’s like to have to walk on eggshells in what is supposed to be the safety of home, and I understand the undercurrent of fear that results from knowing  that walking on said eggshells doesn’t guarantee safety from someone else’s volatile temper. I know what it’s like to have ridiculous racial stereotypes thrown in my face on a regular basis. 

And yet, when I encountered these situations in Eleanor and Park, I felt nothing more than a mild discomfort as I felt my own memories merely tickle at the edge of my awareness, rather than force their way to the forefront and mirror whatever provocations Eleanor or Park happened to be enduring at that point of the book. 

Moreover, while Eleanor and Park are on the surface atypical YA characters, I still found their life circumstances portrayed in a way that did not allow me to take them seriously.

For instance, at the beginning of the book, Eleanor has just moved back in with her family after having been kicked out by her stepfather and spending a year at a friend’s house. During that time, her family moved to a different house, in which the bathroom has no door and she has to share a tiny bedroom with her four younger siblings. Her stepfather is an abusive alcoholic, her biological father is a deadbeat who doesn’t pay his child support, thereby making her mom stereotyped abuse victim 101. Catie from the Readventurer aptly noted in our podcast comments that she appreciated the novelty of a poor, struggling caucasian character in Eleanor.

While it’s true that the poor, struggling characters in YA books tend to be boys and/or minorities, Eleanor’s troubles in the book, by having bullying AND abuse AND alcoholism AND poverty all crammed in there, struck me as caricatures, rather than authentic struggles. I know it may be hard to believe, but sometimes not all of these issues happen simultaneously in real life. Sometimes parents are assholes without the fuel of alcohol. Sometimes they’re abusers without the frustration of poverty. Sometimes they’re poor AND *gasp* good, hardworking people! 

Additionally, as I also spoke about at length during our first podcast, I found Park’s character, which had so much potential for nuance, to be flat as a freshly zambonied ice rink. First of all, I do not understand how he could not be somewhat aware of the issues surrounding Eleanor’s crapfest of a home life. I get teenage self-absorption and all, but the obviousness of the situation combined with his obliviousness made him look like a moron. Furthermore, rather than have him deal with the intangible struggle of being caught in between two very different cultures and value systems between his Korean-born mother and American surroundings, the author instead has Park spend his time whinging about his insecurities over his Korean appearance. He is ashamed of his mother’s accent. He blames his short height on his Korean genes. He fears his white dad looks at him as effeminate because he looks more Korean than his younger brother Josh. He is jealous of his brother because Josh barely looks Korean at all. 

As a Korean-American, I found this simplistic attitude that portrays being a minority solely as a negative solely based on racial appearance shallow, offensive and frustrating because this type of poor depiction has been going on for my whole life, repeatedly, in every cultural medium. I suppose it would be easy to assume that every minority in the US wishes they could just snap their fingers and be white, but the reality is far more complicated. Rainbow Rowell had a huge opportunity to explore these intricacies via Park’s character, and Park’s mom, for that matter, but clearly did not do her research, and therefore did not deliver.

Ultimately, I found could not buy into what is supposed the be the focal point of the book, which is the romance (more like romance?) between Eleanor and Park.

I did find the framework of the romantic development, in which the Eleanor and Park slowly connect on the school bus via the sharing of mixtapes and comic books, novel and charming. But, the 180 degree contrast of Eleanor’s home life to Park’s financially stable, loving home life felt like a forced, exaggerated version of Pretty in Pink, which as a movie is charming but never struck me as realistic. And because I never felt like the book delved into either character in a deep manner, which limited the character development, which limited the relationship development, I was unable to believe in the all-consuming teenage love that Rainbow Rowell tried to portray.

However, even though I found myself incredibly let down by Eleanor and Park, due in large part to the lack of proper research and context into cultural and historical issues that I find quite important, especially for what is termed a historical novel, I still harbor optimism for any of Rainbow Rowell’s future works.

As a huge fan of Rowell’s previously published book, Attachments, which utterly charmed me with its portrayal of vivid connections between characters who don’t interact in person as well as convinced me of the 1990s setting, I look forward to being delighted by her writing once again because I am convinced that it will happen.

FNL Character Rating: J.D. McCoy: Cute on the surface, initially promising, but ultimately a huge disappointment that I’d love to forget but can’t because he was so darned infuriating.

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