Book Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

cover eleanor and park

I actually read this book in December/January, during my winter break, but I heard about it on NPR’s Morning Edition, which heralded it as a young adult novel that had recently gotten a lot of attention. In introducing the author, they described her as writing “conventional fiction unconventionally. They’re romances, but there’s no meeting-cute, or ripping bodices–the people in them seem real.”

Amazon’s description of Eleanor & Park:

Bono met his wife in high school, Park says.
So did Jerry Lee Lewis, Eleanor answers.
I’m not kidding, he says.
You should be, she says, we’re 16.
What about Romeo and Juliet?
Shallow, confused, then dead.

I love you, Park says.
Wherefore art thou, Eleanor answers.
I’m not kidding, he says.
You should be.

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love—and just how hard it pulled you under.

For me, it wasn’t anything special–it was chicklit trying too hard not to be chicklit. But what really struck me about the story was that it wasn’t really meant to be read by the young adult audience–it was written in the YA style, for adults.

The thing that makes Eleanor and Park unique is the large emphasis on music and nostalgia in the plot. Taking place in 1986, the two love interests make each other mix tapes and gossip about the music of the time. There are distinctly vintage elements to the plot.

This is what has gotten the novel so much attention. The music, the awkward, budding romance, the old telephones–they are soaked in nostalgia. For people who were in high school in the ’80s, this book brings back memories, tying them into the fairly simplistic romance between Eleanor and Park. When my step-mother (in her forties) read the story, she absolutely loved it, saying that it transported her back to her own time in high school.

Which brings me to my point: this isn’t a YA novel. This is a YA-esque  story written for adults. To quote the amazon description, “you’ll remember your own first love.” As a target member of the YA demographic, I’m in high school right now. I haven’t even had a boyfriend. I’m not going to be “remembering” anything about first loves.

I didn’t know any of the music. Sure, this is mainly because I don’t listen to much music from before 2000 (please don’t kill me). But even if I did know the music, I haven’t lived through the music. Practically no one in the YA audience has. (I’m talking about teens; I know older people do read YA, and I really do appreciate that, but these books are marketed toward young adults.) I don’t have memories attached to the music, and I really don’t have memories of mix tapes or flirting over landlines.

You know who does? Adults who lived through the ’80s. That’s who this book is written for. Not young adults.

And yet:

  • A 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature
  • Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of 2013
  • New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2013
  • Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of 2013

The judges of these awards were probably adults. This story has a large emotional connection for most adults. If a forty-something judge were forced to choose between romances relying on Facebook stalking and flirty text messages and the nostalgia of Eleanor and Park, the latter wins.

However, we need to hold these judges accountable. They are not judging “The best book written for kids that adults can connect to”–at least that’s not what it says on the trophy. But routinely, this is what these awards end up as. If I’m in a bookstore, I’m immediately hesitant of an award-winning book. I’ll read a New York Times Bestseller–because the YA audience are the people buying the book and putting it at the top. But if there is a sticker on the cover with some award named after an old person? I don’t trust it.

But we could change the culture! If judges just separated themselves from the awards they are giving, or if the judges were young adults themselves, we would see awards given to books that appeal to teens, not the books adults want to appeal to teens.

Once you remove the nostalgic elements of the novel, it’s just contemporary romance. But it wasn’t anything special; I actually found most of it predictable and not very moving. The book relies so prominently on the emotional connection its readers will have to the past that it doesn’t do anything close to an impressive job at forging its own connections to the reader. The plot is simplistic: girl meets boy, they fall in love, parental/societal complications ensue, climactic end.

Whatever. It’s ChickLit.

Rainbow Rowell tried to make it different. The main characters are an overweight girl bullied for her lack of a fashion sense and a half-Korean boy who is a constant disappointment to his father for not wanting to follow in the family tradition of martial artists. Basically, it’s not a popular girl and the football star falling in love.

This is not a new idea in the YA genre. A similar (though skinnier) girl character can be found in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys. Boy love interests that aren’t physical masterpieces can be found in Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins.

Eleanor and Park is drawing adult attention to a genre currently represented by the media as Twilight and The Hunger Games. The fact that Rainbow Rowell can write characters that “seem real” is not an amazing accomplishment. Read anything by Libba Bray, Patrick Ness, Megan Whalen Turner, or Susan Vaught. People write incredible YA all the time. Unfortunately, adults separated from the genre only hear about the overblown, overly-dramatic train-wrecks the media goes berserk over. (It’s the same way people can generalize all of today’s music as Justin Beiber’s repetitive monotony, without having ever heard a song by The Fray or Gavin Degraw.) Adults are looking at Eleanor and Park as the epitome of the YA genre, a diamond among vampire-romance coal. Let alone the fact that Eleanor and Park doesn’t fit into the genre it is supposedly representing, and that a lot of paranormal romance is actually well written and emotionally moving.

Eleanor and Park does a good job at what it is supposed to do: be YA for adults, bringing them back to their time in high school.

It is not, however, YA, and people need to stop acting like teens today should hail it as the book of the century.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

  1. I also read this book some time ago. I’ve been meaning to review it on Sitting in the Stacks, but school got in the way. Thanks for the follow by the way!


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