Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Currently available.

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

15745753Face Value: This is a stunning, simple cover. It looks like appropriately 2013 and will appeal to contemporary readers, but it also captures the 1980s vibe of the story. I loved this cover until I started reading. That’s when I realized that Eleanor was not represented well on the cover.

Throughout the book, Rowell describes Eleanor as a curvy girl. She is at one point described as having a body “like a medieval barmaid.” Park, on the other hand, is significantly smaller than Eleanor. He is 5’ 4” and has a slight stature. Their physical differences are definitely a factor in their romance, and it is a source of great anxiety for Eleanor. I wish that the cover illustration didn’t magically make Eleanor a small and skinny girl. I want her to be represented the way she is, without any editing to make her look smaller just for the sake of cover design balance.

Does it break the slate? The relationship between Eleanor and Park is definitely Slatebreaking. Even though both Eleanor and Park face enormous social discomfort by being together, they push through that awkwardness and find a way to love each other. They are an unconventional couple, especially among the plethora of YA romantic couples that readers know and love. I like that they bring something different to the romance genre.

Who would we give it to? There is a Romeo and Juliet motif running throughout Eleanor & Park.  I would give this book to any high school student reading or performing Romeo and Juliet, because it would be a great way to start a conversation comparing the two stories. Even those who roll their eyes at the desperate romance of Romeo and Juliet might find something intriguing about Eleanor and Park.

Review: Teen romances will always be a part of YA fiction. When you are an adolescent, your hormones and your cultural surroundings push romance to the forefront. Sometimes it’s tough to think about anything else. It’s no wonder that stories of love – reciprocated or unrequited, lasting or fleeting – are so prominent in YA literature. There are so many love stories in YA that the plots and characters tend to blend together. That’s why it’s so refreshing to encounter a book like Eleanor & Park, in which love is challenging and painful and the most wonderful thing these characters have ever experienced.

Eleanor and Park meet on the bus. They are both marked “weird” by the popular kids in school – Eleanor because she is an eccentric dresser with wildly curly red hair, and Park because he is the only half-Korean boy in the whole school. Their unconventional love story begins with a shared interest in comic books. It’s a sweet romance. They barely speak to one another, yet the narration told from the two perspectives shows that they notice each other’s every move and are completely smitten.

The romance grows as they begin to get to know one another. They develop a friendship at the same time as they are falling in love with one another. I think that’s why I liked this story so much – yes, there was much heavy breathing and lusting after one another, but they really do value one another as friends. That’s the best part, I think. There’s plenty of awkwardness, of course. Eleanor has become the target of school bullies. Park becomes furious and wants to defend her, but he’s also conflicted about his own feelings of shame and embarrassment when Eleanor won’t conform.

Eleanor is a Slatebreaking character all on her own. Some readers may disagree with me on this, but I’m going to make my argument. Eleanor lives in a home that is being torn apart by domestic abuse. The cycle of abuse dictates their schedule, their family celebrations, their financial status – it rules their lives. She refuses to get Park involved in her home life because she knows that a) it will probably get her killed if she brings home a boy and b) she’s ashamed of what is happening in her family. It takes Eleanor a really long time to do something about her situation, but she does it. When she realizes how close to danger she really is, she takes action to save herself. That’s totally Slatebreaking. She may not be a hero character and she may not have faced her abuser head on, but it took great strength for Eleanor to make that difficult choice. Especially because it jeopardizes her relationship with Park. Eleanor is doing the best that she can to break the cycle of abuse.

Warning: this is a super sad romance. It doesn’t all work out the way we want it to. But this love story is written with such care and such gently attentive description that you will revel in it. It is just lovely.

Reviewed from a library copy.

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