Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Release Date: February 26, 2013
Rating: 3/5

Cover Impressions:
The cover is very cute.  I love the use of the headphone cords to make the '&' symbol and the colors are muted but work well together.  Not sure about the all lower case letters, perhaps an homage to how Eleanor writes?  The English teacher in me cringes nonetheless. 

The Gist:
On Eleanor's first day of school she immediately stands out from the crowd with her bright red hair and strange clothing.  The bus is a battlefield with clearly drawn lines but a cute Asian boy named Park begrudgingly makes room in his seat.  Over the course of the next few weeks they tentatively explore each others taste in comic books and music.  As they draw closer and closer together, Park begins to realize that Eleanor's standoffish demeanor has a lot to do with a rotten home life and some serious insecurities. 

Eleanor & Park is a sweet love story with some genuine feeling, real problems and the typical teenage angst.  The main story was about how the two characters, admitted misfits among their peers, found one another through comic books and music and fell in love.  But the story in which I was more interested was the tragic home-life that Eleanor endured.  Having been sent away once by her abusive step-father and frightened mother, Eleanor is terrified that she will be thrown out again.  Where she once stood up for her mother and tried to end the abuse, she now huddles with her brothers and sister in their bedroom, trying to stay quiet as church mice.  Rowell did an excellent job of portraying the sense of helplessness that a teenager can feel when stuck in an abusive household as well as the burden that younger siblings can pose on someone not ready to take on that role.  I was more than a little disappointed that the adults in Eleanor's life clearly knew of her situation and did nothing, but I can see how this too is based in an all too frequent reality.

The love story, on the other hand, was a little more common.  I did enjoy that Eleanor and Park didn't even like each other right away, no insta-love here!  They fell for each other more slowly than is typical of contemporary fiction and I enjoyed watching as they made small sweet gestures towards one another.  Some of the passages became a little difficult to get through, particularly when Eleanor doubts and demeans herself.  Occasionally, this comes off in much the same manner as a teenager who posts a clearly flattering picture of herself on Facebook with the caption "I'm so ugly!" in a transparent ploy for attention.  The relationship also becomes all-encompassing at a remarkable rate.  Very quickly after they meet, Park starts to cancel plans with friends and remarks that "He wasn't going anywhere without Eleanor."  I never enjoy reading about teens in this type of relationship - it just doesn't seem healthy.  

The characters are interesting, despite the almost constant self-deprecation.  Eleanor clearly stands out from the crowd but does little or nothing to change this fact.  There are sparks there that make me believe that in a different household, she could be a strong and confident individual.  Park also doesn't see his own good qualities and the pair rely on each other as a reflection of their own self-worth.  They make connections through comic books and music, dress differently from their peers and shun the usual small town entertainment.  Eleanor occasionally gets a witty line or two but the real character who made me smile was Park's mother.  She doesn't like Eleanor at first, and makes no secret of it, but eventually warms when she learns of the home situation.  It is clear that she loves her son and want's what is best for him.  Her dialogue is written in broken English and her command over her boys and her husband made for a character that I truly wish had gotten some more page time.

My one concern with Eleanor & Park is the frequent and varied use of inappropriate language.  I understand the desire to use swear words in a YA novel to give it an authentic feel, but I think here there was a bit of overkill.  Nearly every second page contains a swear word and some of those chosen are quite vulgar.  I am not sure that I could, in good conscience, recommend a book with the four letter C word to any of my students.

Teaching/Parental Notes:

16 and up
Gender: Female
Sex: Kissing, Light Petting
Violence: Spousal Abuse, Neglect
Inappropriate Language: Shit, Piss, Fuck, Dick, Bastard, Jesus, Slut, Bitch, Cum, Fag, Cunt
Substance Use/Abuse: Alcohol Abuse, Smoking, Underage drinking, Marijuana Use


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