“Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and ParkELEANOR & PARK
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Read Date: 19 April 2014
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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.

Review summary: It was “Oh my gosh, it’s adorable” at first sight, but it did not sweep me off my feet.

*SPOILER WARNING FOR PLOT DETAILS*

So…”Eleanor & Park”. I know a lot of people loved this, I know there are people who did not, and I know it sparked debates all over the internet. As for me, there are things that I liked, a lot of things that I did not, and this book certainly ignited internal debates in my head in that weird Smeagol/Gollum way. If this review does end up sounding a little Smeagol/Gollum, I apologize; that seems to be the way my brain tries to make sense of what I really think of the book.

Park

I liked that the characters are different—Eleanor is described as a “big girl”, and Park is bi-racial—because it’s nice to see some diversity in a genre that’s populated by perfect, white, beautiful kids.

Park is a bi-racial kid who lives in a community that is predominantly white during a time when majority in the said community are prejudiced against persons of color. But Park is hardly picked on by the other kids except for the occasional racist jokes—in canon because “his family had owned their land back when the neighborhood was still cornfields”, and because Rainbow Rowell said she had a bi-racial friend who was “accepted, even adored, but still feel apart” and that stuck with her. So Park’s “otherness” instead stems from his own insecurities because he looks Korean when his brother hardly does, and because his Father thinks he is “girly” because of his looks. And also he laments that no one outside of Asia thinks Asian guys are hot.

I am not in a position to say that Park’s insecurities are not valid, but I am disappointed that this is pretty much the extent of his “otherness” in this story. I am disappointed that it is ultimately all about his physical appearance. While I did not expect this book to be super deep or to be preachy, nor did I want things to devolve into a racial slur fest for Park, I hoped for a better exploration of his character and his relationship with Eleanor in light of his half-Korean heritage. But he was only ever half-Korean in this book when he’s lamenting his appearance, lamenting his brother’s, when Eleanor gushes about his features, whenever Eleanor calls him “stupid Asian kid”, and when his Korean mother is mentioned. Come to think of it, if Park had been written as white, it wouldn’t have made any difference to the story.

And also other than all this insecurity and the fact that he likes comics and music, studies taekwondo, and what he thinks of and feels for Eleanor, we don’t learn anything more significant about Park. He doesn’t grow as a character all that much either, not even after this supposedly life-changing (as he sees it) romance.

Since I’ve already mentioned Park’s mother…*sigh* Other readers have already commented (rather violently sometimes) about Park’s parents’ relationship. And while on the surface it’s nice that Park’s parents seem to love each other a lot, I am not surprised that so many people were offended by the portrayal of a Korean war veteran bringing home a bride to America. If Rowell wanted to portray that kind of relationship (which, like the decision to make Park half-Korean, is also rooted in something sentimental), it would have been better for her to have gone further and explored, for example, how the parents fell in love and why, and also why Mindy has worked so hard to fit in their community and all but erased traces of her Korean heritage except for her appearance. Was she discriminated against? Did she have other personal issues? Did her husband demand it? How does their relationship affect Park and Josh and how they deal with their own relationships?

On hindsight, Mindy becoming more “Americanized” is probably the reason why Park is not more attuned to his Korean heritage. That sticks in canon, sure, but I’m still disappointed because what was the point of Rowell hanging a lantern on Park’s being bi-racial when it was not gonna be used to understand him more as a character in the first place? I know that his half-Asian-ness is not the end-all and be-all of his character, but when you keep getting hit with a Racial Anvil on the head by the book about his half-Asian-ness, in the end, it just seems as if he’s bi-racial just for the sake of diversity.

Eleanor

I didn’t like how Eleanor was written, to be honest. I was annoyed that she was moody around Park. While there is an effort to explain away some of that because of her family background, I think it was a case of too little too late in terms of character development.

It is also disconcerting that she kept on commenting about Park’s appearance. I understand that sometimes it really is all about appearances (I was a teenager, too! And I still gush about handsome guys) but the frequency of the mentions and the particular focus on Park’s Asian features was just uncomfortable. How she compares Mindy to the Dainty China people in The Wizard of Oz was so disturbing as well.

And she keeps calling him “that stupid Asian kid”. I know it was meant to be a term of affection on her part, but…GAH! (see what I mean by the Racial Anvil?)

Also, I felt that writing her up as overweight and poor and bullied and with an alcoholic, abusive stepfather and an abused mother who could barely protect her was just too much. These are actually very serious issues but they were just glossed over, like they were just included to give her more depth as a character, but things just feel too contrived.

Eleanor and Park

Ultimately, this story is all about the relationship. And I know it’s meant to show that sweeping, all-consuming teenage first love, but I couldn’t feel it. Sure, I liked the novel way Eleanor and Park’s relationship began. And I liked some of the moments that were supposed to be sweet, at least when I actually found them rather sweet. But the transition between indifferent seatmates to seatmates who share music and comics together to hand-holding was just…I dunno. Too abrupt, maybe? Too contrived? Yes, young love can be that random and abrupt, but the development did not feel organic to me.

And those sweet moments? I feel like they were just slapped on there haphazardly, like this was a checklist of moments that Rowell thinks is romantic and she just had to put them all in this book.

Honestly, I’m disappointed that something this geeky and novel couldn’t make me swoon because I love geeky and novel. 😦 But many people loved and swooned at the romance in this book, so I guess to each his/her own.

Random Thoughts

– I liked all the pop culture references because I can relate to them (although right now, nothing can beat the Tauntaun reference in “Dreams of Gods and Monsters”)…

– Which makes me wonder if people who were too young to know about these references can actually enjoy them in context?

– Which then makes me wonder why this had to be set in the 1980’s. Because if Rowell wouldn’t deal with racism as a serious issue, then this could just as well have been set in the present. Sure, we would lose all the pop culture nostalgia, but if that will go over the heads of the younger ones anyway, then… Of course, it’s Rowell’s prerogative to do so, but…yeah.

– Why would Park’s father allow his son to drive his girlfriend to another state in the middle of the night, alone?!

– Mindy’s name reminded me of how 2NE1’s Minzy got her Westernized stage name; her real name is Min Ji. Most of the reviews by Korean bloggers, though, point out that Min Dae, Mindy’s real name, is just not a legit first name for a girl, and not a nice, meaningful name parents would give to their kid. I’m sure Rowell could have found better examples if she did her research.

– Also, I don’t think a Korean would name her son Park. It’s okay if Park had American parents who just randomly wanted to name him Park. But knowing that his Mom is Korean just makes it seem like Rowell, again, did not do her research, and mistook the common family name as a legit first name. What was Mindy’s family name, was it mentioned? Because if it was Park, then it’s just weird that she gave her son her family name as a first name. And knowing that she wants to Americanize everything, it doesn’t make sense that she would name one of her sons Park; the other son got such an American name (Josh). What’s up with that? Did Mr. Sheridan insist on it because of Park’s appearance or something? (And now I am coming up with horrible back stories in my head.)

– Many readers have already commented on the “casual racism” in the book. While I think that some instances are deliberate considering the setting, I think that there could have been a way for the racism to be depicted as something prevalent in that time and place in a manner that will also tell readers that it is not something to be condoned, however casually. Again, I didn’t expect this book to be preachy, but I expected, considering all the criticism being leveled at YA books these days, that the editors, if not Rowell, would have thought the approach through a bit more or maybe test read this for some POCs.

– I don’t know if my e-book had a problem (it’s a legit copy), but I think Rowell misspelled taekwondo. 😄

– Park and his guy-liner, though? That was fun. ;P I’m almost disappointed that this was set in the wrong time for Hallyu because I would have loved all the k-pop references. (If Rowell does her research right, that is.) As it is, we only got Ming the Merciless. Argh.

There was a scene in the book where they were discussing “Romeo and Juliet” in English class, and Eleanor commented that Shakespeare is making fun of love in that play because Romeo and Juliet don’t even know each other but feel like they are in love. Her teacher, Mr. Stessman, protested that it was love at first sight, but Eleanor said “No, it was ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight.” That’s kind of how I feel about “Eleanor & Park”: that it’s adorable at first glance, but it didn’t sweep me off my feet under closer scrutiny. Mr. Stessman will be so disappointed with me; he’s probably gonna go look for another blogger with a heart.

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