Summary: Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK 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. [Image and summary via Goodreads]
UPDATE: Before we dive into the review, I want to link to a post I wrote the following year on this same book: Is Eleanor and Park Racist? And Other Questions to Ask — I hope you’ll give it a read after reading this review. This review has been updated with my evolving thoughts and feelings after processing what felt off to me about the book.
I’ve heard so many good things about Eleanor and Park, so I just had to see for myself – plus, one out of two main characters is a cute biracial Korean American boy? Sounds like good times to me. (Also, all of Rainbow Rowell’s books have the sweetest covers! Is it sorcery?)
What I loved about the book is that it wasn’t what I expected. From all the hype and rave reviews I’d read of Eleanor and Park, I thought the book was a light and quirky love story — nope. Eleanor and Park have completely different families and lives, but their meeting on a bus (definitely not a stereotypical love-at-first-sight meeting) throws them into each other’s path.
Eleanor and Park’s alternating perspectives give the book a sense of balance. Park might be an outcast for being Korean, but that’s not the end of the story. While Park has a loving (though imperfect) family and a upper-middle class upbringing, Eleanor lives in poverty with her struggling family and abusive stepfather. The stark contrast between Eleanor’s life and Park’s is a strong reminder that oppression and privilege come in many different forms.
Sometimes, though, Eleanor’s view of Park and his cultural identity felt a bit irksome at times, and I had to remind myself that characters are allowed to grow. I read through the book, waiting for Eleanor to grow out of her problematic assumptions and point of view — and I’m not sure she ever did. The portrayal of Park’s family felt a bit off, as well. There were times when I began to question whether it was Eleanor herself who was ignorant and borderline racist, or the book itself that was problematic. (Update: After some reflection, yeah, it was pretty problematic.)
To be honest, the sudden jump from tentative friendship to full-on romance was almost jarring. I felt that the emotional intensity of Eleanor and Park’s relationship inexplicable and a bit too much. But, when I read the book in the context of Park’s comment about Romeo and Juliet, I found myself almost, but not quite, believing in Eleanor and Park’s grand and star-crossed love.
Recommendation: Just skip it. The romance is sweet, but the questionable portrayal of Korean characters (and Black side characters) leaves a bad aftertaste. A number of bloggers and authors have written eloquently about the racism in Eleanor and Park, and I recommend you read those for some insight.
In which I try to express the importance of asking questions (and not being afraid to call books out on being problematic): Is Eleanor and Park racist? And Other Questions to Ask