BOOK REVIEW: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor and park Image is from the Goodreads page

I read Eleanor & Park on holiday while tucked up in bed (yes, I’m so old!) and I read it in a couple of sessions flat. I really enjoyed it, actually. It’s the first Rainbow Rowell book I’ve read, but a few friends have recommended one of her other books, Fangirl. Maybe I’ll read that next – I definitely want to read more Rowell! This is a review so it may contain some spoilers re overarching themes and the like, but I’ll try to keep it relatively major spoiler free. This book tackles the topics of domestical violence, alcohol abuse, childhood abuse (including implied sexual) and bullying. If you are sensitive to any of those topics, you may want to skip this one.

So Eleanor and Park go to the same school. Eleanor is new there, and the two of them meet on the school bus when all the other kids won’t let Eleanor sit with them. She’s kinda weird, okay? Park finally relents and tells her to sit next to him. And thus, the story is born.

Eleanor and Park live in the same neighbourhood, but they’re from vastly different worlds. Park is Asian-American, his mother is Korean. He lives with his parents, who are madly in love, and his younger brother in a lovely house with two cars. Eleanor lives with her mother, her plethora of younger siblings and her stepfather in a run down house with only two bedrooms and no bathroom door. She’s just come back to them after living on her mother’s friend’s sofa for a year after her stepfather kicked her out of the house. They are dirt poor. Her mother tries to stretch every meal so they have enough to eat, and they only get clothes when she can find bargains at Goodwill. Park struggles with who he is and who he wants to be. Eleanor struggles with whether she should call the police again whenever she hears her mother screaming at night. But despite the differences in their lives, Eleanor and Park find similarities in each other. They’re both insecure. They both love music, and comic books. They’re both coming of age in a society where they feel they don’t quite fit in. They’re both falling in love for the first time. And through all of that we get our story.

I enjoyed Eleanor & Park. I liked the characters, they were very human. They all had flaws but they showed that your flaws don’t define you, that even good people aren’t always right. And even the bullies at school are presented as three-dimensional – they might do bad things but they also have their own struggles and one doesn’t necessarily outweigh the other. In fact, I think pretty much all the characters are a realistic blend of goodness and not-so-goodness. Except Eleanor’s stepfather. He is a bad bad man and I hate him. Eleanor’s real father is also a very questionable father. Just the father figures man, the father figures. Poor Eleanor.

The book covers a vast array of topics. Important themes include fun and uplifting ones – community, family and friendship, music and comic books – and really pretty heavy ones – domestic violence, abuse, alcohol misuse. It shows various families from the same place and the different paths they’ve taken in life. Where they end up. Who they are. It discusses love in many forms. The love of a husband and wife, so strong she left her whole family behind to be with him. The love of a mother for her son, and how it won’t be broken by anything, no matter who he decides to be and what he decides to do. The love of a teenager for another teenager, pure and complicated and confusing but strong all the same. It discusses violence and hatred and fear as well.

I found it well written and captivating. I read it in around 4 hours or so over the course of a couple of days. I felt an affinity for the characters, and I rooted for them. I related to them, Park more so than Eleanor. I don’t know what it’s like to come from a dysfunctional family, to fear for the safety of your siblings every night. I’m not like Eleanor. But I think I am like Park. I love my family so much but they can be overwhelming, they have high expectations that can sometimes feel crushing, they can be overprotective in a way that feels stifling and unnecessary. Even now, as an adult in my own city forging my own life, I sometimes feel suffocated by my own expectations and those of my parents, who love me and want the best for me but don’t always know how to go about it. So I identify with Park. And unfortunately, there are thousands of teens out there who will identify with Eleanor. And they won’t always be lucky enough to have somewhere to run. I empathised with Eleanor. I was scared for her, angry on her behalf, relieved and hopeful alongside her. The book also depicted “casual racism”. Now I am white and British so I can’t really comment on racism. I know some opinions have been divided as to whether Park’s reactions are genuine. In my opinion, throughout the book Park is struggling to find his way. He feels far more American than he does Korean. Perhaps that’s why he seems so chill about everyday racism? Because he doesn’t feel as strongly connected to that side of his history? The book is also set in the 1960s where casual racism was both more common and more widely accepted. Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps Rowell, herself a white American, just doesn’t really know how to portray racism? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as I’m undecided.

Eleanor & Park is written in third person but from both Eleanor and Park’s “points of view”. I liked this route. I feel we got a well balanced and well rounded view of both main characters, and we got to see them and their lives in parallel to each other which helped both bring them together and drive home their differences. I’m also not a huge fan of first person in general but especially not with split view points, so I liked that Rowell gave us both sides without making it confusing or indistinct.

Perhaps this book isn’t a classic of highbrow literary fiction. It’s YA romance after all. But I don’t read books so that I can sound well read. I read them to discover new worlds and to feel for the characters. And Eleanor & Park achieved this. I think this book is important because it touches on important topics and it does so delicately and sensitively. Or I think so. Perhaps people who are affected by the topics in this book think differently. And of course that’s their prerogative. But for someone who can only know about the horrors of childhood abuse through the eyes of others, I think it did a good job. And it was entertaining, which is the main point of a fiction novel after all. To hook you. To keep you reading. To make you want more. And I did want more.

I’d rate this book a solid 4-4.5 out of 5 (find my rating scale here). I really enjoyed reading Eleanor & Park, I found it emotional and I enjoyed reading about the characters. I read it on Kindle, and I might read it again in a few years. I will definitely read more Rainbow Rowell, probably Fangirl next. And I’d love to know what you guys thought of the book. Did you enjoy it? Did it give you feels? Which of Rowell’s other books would you recommend the most? Let’s chat in the comments!

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