Eleanor and Park
By Rainbow Rowell
Published 2013 by St. Martin's Press
Eleanor and Park are both misfits. Eleanor has flaming red hair and a unique sense of fashion. Park is half-Korean in a mostly white school. When Eleanor appears on the bus one day, they begrudgingly share a seat. But seat-sharing will lead to deeper connections until both are left wondering how they existed before they met.
Sigh. I might have to call this my biggest disappointment of the year so far. I mean, it's still relatively early in the year for that assessment, but this book just did not live up to the hype for me. Let me address the hype first, actually - I've been hearing about this book since the end of last year. It's been reviewed (and adored) on pretty much every book blog I regularly read. It's already been suggested as a potential Printz contender. This hype is not a bad thing - it builds my excitement to read the book and figure out what it is that everyone loves about it (I'll admit, I didn't actually read any of the reviews before I finished the book; I skimmed to see what the general feeling was). This hype and my own excitement leads to big expectations, expectations that this book just didn't live up to for me.
Okay, I want to love this book. It takes place in 1986 and it's about two misfits who find each other and fall in love. It sounds a bit like Say Anything in book form (though I suppose, Diane Court is not truly a misfit). It is about first love and how wonderful and awkward and hilarious and heartbreaking it can be. It's about remembering what it feels like to wonder what life was like before you knew this person, how you ever survived in that world. I wanted so badly to love this book like I love other books about the incredible pain that is young love - I just didn't.
Why don't I love this book? Well, it's not easy to say. I found the 1986 setting odd - what made Rowell choose that year for this book? Eleanor and Park bond over music and comic books, but they could just as easily have bonded over those same things in present time. Is it simply to eliminate the ever-present and invasive world of social media? Is it because we assume that much of the reality that Eleanor is living would not be so easily ignored in the present day (whether or not that is true is another discussion)? When a book has a historical setting, I assume it's deliberate, and I generally assume that something in the cultural climate is going to have a direct impact on the book's plot or characters. That's not the case here, leaving me just perplexed about the temporal setting.
I've seen some people mention that Eleanor is unlikable and that's why they don't like the book. I'm not sure I agree with this assessment (also, likability is just a tricky road to walk). She's complicated - her home life sucks, and school is not that much better. She doesn't really have a whole lot of good going for her, and then she meets Park. Can you blame her for her incredulity about his interest or her skepticism about it working out for them? She is a real person, likable or not. My problem with Eleanor is that I don't see her as distinct enough from Park. Their story is told in alternating vignettes but, for me, there is no narrative distinction. The voice of Eleanor sounds almost exactly like the voice of Park, to the point where I mostly just ignored the headings that told me which one was allegedly narrating (I should mention this is third-person narrative). I don't feel like they are developed clearly enough.
The ending - I will take the blame on this one. I have a love/hate relationship with ambiguous endings; sometimes I adore them, and sometimes they make me scream. This was one that I did not adore. I feel like this ending is purposely ambiguous as a way to make readers feel the book is even more romantic than it is; in all honesty, most people who imagine an end for these characters beyond what's written are going to imagine one specific ending, and it's probably the same ending we imagine for Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court. A lot of people talked about feeling emotionally manipulated by The Fault in Our Stars last year; I feel a bit that way about this book.
I do want to say that this book is heartbreakingly beautiful on pretty much a sentence by sentence level; Rowell constructs prose that is so gorgeous I want to just revel in it. That alone is enough for me to not write this book off completely. I am clearly in the minority on this title. Please, read other reviews and then read the book for yourself. I'd love to hear if anyone else shares my thoughts about this book. I'll be interested to see if it does come up in potential Printz discussions and see what faults others may see in it.
Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.