As a fan of Rainbow Rowell’s delightful debut novel, “Attachments,” I was intrigued when I heard that she had written a new Young Adult novel. What I expected from “Eleanor & Park,” though, wasn’t quite what I got.
“Eleanor & Park,” set in Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-1980s, tells the story of two teenagers who seem completely different at first. Park, who’s half-Korean, is one of the few minorities in town, but he’s successfully managed to stay in with the in crowd. But everything starts to shift the day Eleanor gets on the school bus for the first time.
Eleanor is “not just new—but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly.” And her clothes are a raggedy, multicolored mess. She’s everything that the in crowd loves to tease and torment.
So when Park reluctantly offers Eleanor the seat next to him, he figures he’s in for “a world of suck.” But very gradually—starting when Park realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder—the two of them begin to recognize just how alike they really are. And before too long, the raggedy girl with the lightning wit looks like the most beautiful girl on earth to Park . . . and the opinions of the in crowd don’t matter anymore.
But Park doesn’t know that Eleanor has far bigger problems than what her schoolmates think of her. Eleanor’s home life is a nightmare of abuse, neglect, and poverty. The reason she’s new at school is that her mother had dumped her with family friends for a year, for the crime of trying to stand up to her stepfather; she’s only now being allowed to come and join the family in their new house.
Rowell’s portrayal of the events in that house is a harrowing but all too real portrait of domestic violence. The author handles this tough topic with both honesty and sensitivity. The scene where Eleanor’s mother tells her that Richie, the mean and violent stepfather, will always come first, no matter how badly he treats them all, is painful to read. And there are hints of an even darker threat coming from Richie—a threat that will eventually force Eleanor to run, and cause Park to make the biggest sacrifice he’s ever made.
There’s a lot to like about “Eleanor & Park.” Rowell’s writing is sharp, intelligent, and heartfelt, and her characterization skillful. Eleanor and Park’s relationship grows from dislike to indifference to friendship to love, so naturally that one can barely discern the separate stages. Rowell makes you truly care about these characters, and marvel at how each learns to find beauty in the other (for Eleanor, almost the only beauty she’s ever known in her life).
And Rowell doesn’t make the mistake, as many YA authors do, of creating two-dimensional, perfectly evil villains. Even Tina, the worst of Eleanor’s tormentors at school, turns out to have a few things in common with Eleanor, and ends up helping her in a moment of crisis.
Unfortunately, the book is marred by frequent profanity, much of which is hardcore. We’re not just talking an occasional curse word. Park uses particularly colorful language toward Eleanor the first time they meet, though he regrets it later. Most of the kids at school pepper their conversation with obscenities. Someone writes vile sexual slurs on Eleanor’s textbook covers.
If some of my own school memories are anything to go by, it’s all pretty accurate, but it doesn’t exactly make for edifying reading, and I can’t help wishing that Rowell had found a way to tone it down. (Ironically, “Attachments,” her book for adults, had much cleaner language.) This is something that parents will want to be aware of and take into consideration.
The language is probably the most objectionable element here. There are a few passing references to religion, most of which are innocuous. As for sexual content, Eleanor and Park make out pretty heavily, but never actually have sex. They do come close to it, the last time they’re together (“There’s no shame with Park. Nothing is dirty,” Eleanor thinks). But Park calls a halt—for one thing, he doesn’t have condoms, and for another, he tells her, “I need to believe that it isn’t our last chance.”
One particularly positive element in the book is that the protagonists recognize the problems with divorce and the value of marriage. Eleanor has to deal every day with the fallout from her parents’ lack of commitment to each other and to their children. Park, on the other hand, reflects on his parents’ marriage:
He loved how much they loved each other. It was the thing he thought about when he woke up scared in the middle of the night. Not that they loved him—they were his parents, they had to love him. That they loved each other. They didn’t have to do that.
None of his friends’ parents were still together, and in every case, that seemed like the number one thing that had gone wrong with his friends’ lives. [Emphasis in original.]
Rainbow Rowell knows how to tell a rich and compelling story about unforgettable characters. I hope, though, that the next time she writes a teen novel, it will be more appropriate for teens.
Image copyright St. Martin's Griffin. Review copy from reviewer's personal collection.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.
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