“Eleanor was right: She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something” (Rowell 2013, p. 165).
“What were the chances you’d ever meet someone like that? he wondered. Someone you could love forever, someone who would forever love you back? And what did you do when that person was born half a world away?” (Rowell 2013, p. 301).
The more I read for this blog, the harder it is to choose a favorite. This was the first book by Rainbow Rowell that I’d read, and I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t waited quite so long to pick up some of her work! I absolutely adored this book; it had such a simple story, and yet the main characters were so pure and innocent that it was hard not to be completely absorbed by their romance. The book explores many tough themes, from child abuse and alcoholism to bullying and self-esteem, but it never once feels preachy or forced. Instead, this novel feels honest; each of the characters is incredibly believable, and none are without flaws or imperfections. As someone who enjoys fantasy and sci-fi, I’m always surprised when I find a work of realistic fiction that really resonates with me.
Eleanor & Park, as you might imagine, follows the story of two misfit teens, Eleanor Douglas and Park Sheridan. At the beginning of the novel, Eleanor has only recently moved back into the area, and is now attending Park’s school for the first time. Eleanor comes from a broken home; her parents are separated, and her mom remarried an alcoholic man who is verbally abusive to Eleanor, her mom, and her four young siblings. Eleanor struggles with self-esteem and weight issues, and frequently suffers from vicious bullying at the hands of her new classmates, who refer to her as “Big Red.” Park is Korean and somewhat popular, hanging around with a group he doesn’t necessarily like in order to avoid the bullying. Though his parents have a strong marriage and clearly love him, he constantly struggles to live up to the expectations of his strict father, who sees him as a bit of a “sissy.” When Eleanor steps onto the bus on her first day of school, nobody is willing to give her a seat. That is, of course, until Park reluctantly moves over, sharing his space with the new misfit. The two slowly begin to form a friendship as the year drags on, learning more and more about each other until they’re completely inseparable. Eleanor & Park is a heart-warming story of acceptance, friendship, family, and the courage to pursue young love even when you know it has no chance of lasting.
This book reminds me a lot of Judy Blume’s Forever, as it toys with the idea of first love and how it rarely lasts in our modern society. While Forever deals more with sex, consent, and contraceptives, however, Eleanor & Park focuses on issues such as bullying and broken homes. While Eleanor and Park experiment a little with their sexuality, they never actually go “all the way,” putting the focus much more on the emotional side of their growing relationship. One of the biggest themes I noticed throughout the novel was acceptance, and what it took for Eleanor to be accepted by her peers and those around her. When the novel begins, Eleanor is the weird new girl, whose weight and bright red hair make her an instant target for bullies. As the novel progresses, she continually finds crass, obscene things written in her textbooks, and at one point her clothes are even thrown in the toilet, forcing her to walk home in nothing but her tight gym uniform from school.
After reading the novel, I found myself wanting to know what happened next, leading me to Rainbow Rowell’s FAQ page. To my dismay, I saw that one of the most frequently asked questions was “whether or not Eleanor was actually fat.” This saddened me, as I don’t think anyone’s weight (fictional character or otherwise) should matter as long as he or she is healthy. In fact, Eleanor is malnourished throughout the story, only getting proper meals when she visits Park at his home. Her weight clearly has nothing to do with an unhealthy lifestyle, and yet she is ridiculed and ostracized for it by her peers. I could tell that Rainbow Rowell was disheartened by receiving this question as well; she linked to a very powerful article in her response, in which a woman describes her own struggle with acceptance due to her weight and low self-esteem. Eleanor is overweight, yes, but finds love and acceptance anyways, thus proving that her weight never really mattered at all. She is strong, smart, and tough, and manages to find her own happy ending despite her struggles with weight and bullying. The author of the article, Kaye Toal, describes in immense detail what reading about Eleanor’s struggles at age 23 meant to her:
“I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d met Eleanor Douglas earlier. If Eleanor and Park had existed when I needed it most, would I have read it instead of She’s Come Undone? Would I have developed an eating disorder so violent that I still can’t think about it too hard without wanting to crawl under a bed and stay there in the dark and quiet for several hours? Would I have been able to forgive my parents sooner? Would I have been able to forgive myself? I think maybe the answer to some of these things is yes” (Toal 2015).
If this isn’t proof that representation matters in fiction, I don’t know what is. It’s no secret in our society that young girls are often self-conscious about their bodies and their weight, and their doubts are often perpetuated by media that portrays women as unrealistically thin and fit. All too often, “being fat” is seen as an ultimate taboo, a reason to be shunned and picked on and made to feel inferior. For Eleanor, her weight becomes a source of empowerment, as she meets someone (Park) who loves her for who she is, curves and all. This was a heart-warming and much-needed change in fiction, and especially YA fiction, as it teaches girls that it’s okay to love yourself and your body, and that the right person will love everything about you.
While Eleanor is an excellent example of representation, however, I was a little more confused by Park. He is frequently described as being half-Korean (his father met his mother in Korea while serving in the military overseas), but it sometimes seems like the author is doing this for the sake of adding diversity to the story. On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful that an Asian character is being portrayed as a love interest, as this rarely happens in young adult literature. Similarly, Park seems to be Korean without being reduced to a stereotype; he doesn’t act any different than any of his peers. In fact, if Rowell had decided not to mention that he and his mother are Korean, I doubt the audience would even have noticed, which can be either negative or positive depending on your point of view. White people, for example, come from a variety of European nations; you wouldn’t know just by looking at someone whether their ancestors were from Spain or Germany or France. While you can clearly tell if someone is of Asian descent, their appearance tells you nothing about whether or not they’re Korean, Japanese, Chinese, or from another culture entirely. Park’s mother is very traditional (and speaks in sometimes disjointed English), but otherwise doesn’t flaunt his Korean heritage. This seemed to be the effect Rowell was going for; that people are just people, regardless of their heritage or place of origin.
That being said, Park’s Korean heritage didn’t quite add to the story in the way Eleanor’s red hair and weight did. He was never bullied for it (he mentions at one point that he’s been called racial slurs like “chink” before, but it doesn’t appear to have had a significant effect on him), and it is only brought up in passing as a joke every once in a while. I can’t pretend to know the reason for this, but I would hope that the author didn’t intend to pass Park off as the “token Asian” character. Similarly, Eleanor makes two friends in school named DeNice and Beebi, who stand out almost as “token African American” characters. While they seem to be the only two girls who treat Eleanor like a person instead of a punching bag (they protect her and make her feel more welcome and accepted at the school), they sometimes speak in a stereotypical manner, and serve no other purpose to the plot other than helping to build up Eleanor whenever she can’t be with Park. I didn’t have a huge problem with them, but I can’t help but wonder how a young African American reader might feel about their interactions with Eleanor. Sadly, I cannot speak for that demographic; I can only speculate as to whether or not the characters of DeNice and Beebi are respectful or offensive.
Despite the novel’s sometimes mixed messages on race, however, there are many themes explored in Eleanor & Park that I found to be extremely well done. For example, Eleanor comes from a broken home. Her parents divorced sometime before the beginning of the novel, and her mother is now married to a man who physically and verbally abuses his wife, and also verbally abuses Eleanor and her siblings. In addition, he spends the family’s hard-earned money on booze instead of buying food and necessities, only pitching in when he’s in a decent mood (which, as you can imagine, is rare). This character, named Richie, was absolutely terrible; I couldn’t stand him, and I kept hoping something awful would happen to him at the end of the book. The saddest part of reading this book, however, was knowing that there are real children out there suffering at the hands of abusive parents just like Richie; reading a book like this might give them hope that a better life exists out there if they can only hang on a little longer.
I also like that, while Park had a seemingly “perfect” and “normal” family (his parents are still together, and clearly making enough money to live comfortably), this doesn’t mean that Park’s life is “perfect.” Based on his father’s reaction when Park starts wearing eyeliner near the middle of the book, I can only imagine what he would have done if Park had turned out to be gay. His father clearly loves him, but is incredibly harsh on Park, berating him for every little thing he does that comes across as being “less than masculine.” This juxtaposition of the two families shows young readers that, no matter your situation, everyone is facing their own demons. The “perfect family,” or the family we might see a version of on our Facebook feed, does not exist; it’s merely an illusion covering up battle scars that we know nothing about. Eleanor and Park have very different problems, but are able to help one another through those problems by being supportive and empathetic towards one another. This was a very poignant message, and one that I think comes across exceedingly well.
While Eleanor & Park definitely has its flaws, it is ultimately an endearing story about hope, family, and the power love has to lift us out of miserable situations. Eleanor and Park are able to find a refuge in one another, if only for a brief moment in time, and I think both of them are better off for it in the end. Through their relationship, those around them (such as Park’s mother, who dislikes Eleanor at first due to her strange clothing and quiet nature) begin to learn both tolerance and acceptance; even Tina, the source of most of Eleanor’s misery at the beginning of the book, ends up helping to hide her when her step-father comes looking for her near the end. Though the book deals with incredibly heavy themes (abuse, divorce, alcoholism, etc.), I somehow still found it to be an incredibly pure, simple story. It is a story about how love can transform us, allowing us to see others in a completely new light as we learn more about their hopes, flaws, and daily struggles. My only real gripe is that this book doesn’t currently have a sequel; I would love to know what happens to Eleanor and Park’s relationship after the conclusion of the book. While, in reality, they likely wouldn’t last past high school, something in me still hopes that these two characters might find a happy ending despite the odds.
Rowell, R. (2013). Eleanor & Park. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Toal, K. (2015, March 11). How Finding A Fat YA Heroine Changed My Life. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from https://www.buzzfeed.com/kayetoal/that-knife-of-recognition?utm_term=.phjn2LBMn#.sx2ozqlro.