[Hey, listen. We do spoilers here, okay? Major spoilers, all the time. You've been warned.]
Just as I opened my laptop to write this review, it dawned on me that I first read Eleanor & Park over a year ago. Holding back tears that eventually spill into sobs is not a thing you forget easily. Especially when the thing that reduces you to a puddle of goo is, “Just three words long.”
I fell hard for this book. It felt like Rainbow Rowell had used my consciousness to write a novel I didn’t even know I had inside me; that’s how personal the experience was for me.
Before we delve into Rowell’s novel, let’s get back to the future for a moment. Since I read it as a digital galley last year, E & P has blown up. It’s a New York Times bestseller, has five starred reviews, and John Green has given the book a glowing recommendation in the New York Times Book Review. And if that isn’t impressive enough for you, Rowell’s other YA novel published this year, Fangirl, is also a critical success with five stars of its own. Most notable is that her novels appear together on SLJ‘s and the New York Times‘ best lists. (Eleanor & Park is also on the Horn Book’s Fanfare, Publishers Weekly’s Best Books, and Kirkus’ Best Teen Books.)
Where there is high praise though, backlash will follow. With E & P in particular it’s been difficult to avoid all critical commentary, but my completely non-empirical understanding is that race, historical context and accuracy have been among the issues raised. And then there are those who say that it’s just not that good.
For the record, I still love this book. That won’t go away, at least not any time soon. That doesn’t mean though that I can’t think critically about the work; time and revisiting the text—a re-read of the final copy and a listen of the audiobook—have certainly sharpened my reading and there is a lot to discuss.
Over multiple readings, Rainbow Rowell’s voice holds up incredibly well. The novel is written in third person limited from both Eleanor and Park’s perspectives in alternating sections. The authorial voice is witty and quick. Her sentences have a simple cadence, a kind of spare yet punchy musicality. What makes Rowell’s voice really special is that she speaks the language of pop culture. The text is littered with references to movies, television shows, comics, novels, bands, people, places and things. E & P may as well be I Love the ’80s: 1986 (and I mean this in a really good way). This isn’t Rowell showing off with obscure knowledge or name-dropping just for the sake of adding “local color.” Eleanor and Park bond while trading pop culture likes and dislikes. Song lyrics and comic book quotes are significant to the narrative. Movies show up as metaphor and character development:
“I love you,” he said.
She looked up at him, her eyes shiny and black, then looked away. “I know,” she said …
“You know?” he repeated. She smiled, so he kissed her. “You’re not the Han Solo in this relationship, you know.”
“I’m totally Han Solo,” she whispered. …
“Well, I’m not Princess Leia,” he said.
“Don’t get so hung up on gender roles,” Eleanor said. …
“You can be Han Solo,” he said, kissing her throat. “And I’ll be Boba Fett. I’ll cross the sky for you.”
They are different in so many ways but the thing that this couple of misfits share is pop culture. It’s how they communicate and understand each other, and it’s part of why the fall in love. So when Park says “I love you” while they are spending a blissful afternoon alone in Park’s house, it makes sense that they compare their relationship to Star Wars (and how could they not? Especially when Eleanor’s response is “I know.”
As the third person limited narrator, Rowell also uses pop culture metaphor as a kind of shorthand. After Eleanor goes to Park’s house and meets his mom, she thinks about the household perfection she observes in terms of the television families she knows, the Cleavers and the Waltons, and despairs that she will never fit in. What Rowell does really well here is demonstrate that the characters aren’t only using pop culture to communicate, it’s how they make sense of their lives.
This kind of pop culture infused speech can seem artificial. We see characters talk like this on tv, in shows like Dawson’s Creek (natch), and in movies like 500 Days of Summer and Juno, but do people really talk and think like this?
Of course they do. This is the way I talk with my friends; it’s how I hear my students talk to each other. Maybe we’re not always as quick and witty as Joey Potter, Juno, or Eleanor, but the voice in E & P rings true because it’s an idealized reflection of something authentic.
It’s important to note the distinction between Rowell’s voice as author, and her characters’ dialogue. Although both share a lot of qualities, the teens in E & P have their own cadences and vocabulary. They use profanity, they say “you know” and “like,” and they stumble. As readers, it is easy to believe in Eleanor and Park as real people because they are created with and use a consistent, authentic voice. Early in their relationship, Park tells Eleanor that she always seems mad at him, and it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from. Her sarcasm and pessimism deflect and defend her from true intimacy with Park. She finally breaks down and tells him how much she needs him, that she feels like she isn’t living when he’s not around. So much character development is coming out in the sharing between these two, and it’s all supported in the text.
“She couldn’t repay him. She couldn’t even appropriately thank him. How can you thank someone for the Cure? Or the X-Men? Sometimes it felt like she’d always be in his debt.
And then she realized that Park didn’t know about the Beatles.”
Of course, Rowell’s not just talking about the bands and comics. Park’s easy ability to share his passions with Eleanor actually feeds into her insecurity, but a little bit slips away when she realizes that she does have a passion to give to him. Sharing music they love is just the opening act to their eventual emotional and physical intimacy. The desire to give something of yourself to someone, to influence them, to change their life in the way they’ve changed yours: this is one of the most important ideas in the novel. Because yes, first love almost never lasts, but when two people affect each other the way that Eleanor and Park do, there is nothing that lasts longer.
I could go on–because the more I write about this book, the more I am convinced of its literary merit–but now that we’ve tackled voice, style, characters, and theme, something should be said about race in the novel. Although its not part of the Printz criteria, the depiction of race can make or break a novel’s accuracy.
I’m not gonna lie, the initial reason I wanted to read this novel was because of the gorgeous cover and seeing the name “Park” in the title. I’m a Korean-American adoptee, and I was thrilled to see a Korean name in the title of a book whose cover did not telegraph “Asian-ness” (i.e.: no Asian-ish font or design). The jacket copy doesn’t mention that Park is half-Korean but Rowell doesn’t ignore Park’s identity; it’s a huge part of his narrative struggle. Throughout the novel he must deal with the ignorant assumptions of his classmates and his own hangups about his appearance, which he is hyper-aware of. Making matters more complicated is that in his mind, his Asian identity is wrapped up with femininity because he looks more like his mother, while his younger brother looks like his big, Irish-American father. He isn’t sure what it means to be Korean, because his mother has done her best to assimilate and rarely talks about her heritage. Park’s individual story is handled sensitively and ties-in nicely with the other major themes at work in the novel.
If I’m going to point out any failing with race in the novel, I have to mention DeNice and Beebi, the two black girls who befriend Eleanor after she is bullied. Park’s friend Cal and classmates Steve and Tina are similarly flat and broadly written, but with two girls of color, this seemed problematic and uncomfortable, especially when their dialogue is in a stylized dialect. On a first read, they don’t necessarily stand out, because they are inconsequential to the story we really care about; it was only on my listen of the audiobook that I became aware that the dialect might be a tad overdone. As I always say though, this is where assessing accuracy in fiction can become tricky because one reader’s “overdone” is another reader’s just “right.”
When a novel leaps into your heart and makes you weep, it can be really hard to parse through what is squee-good and what is literary-good. Writing this post has made me realize that although I thought E & P was just squee-good, I haven’t even scratched the surface of everything I’d like to discuss with this book. I still have some 2013 titles to read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if E & P earns at least a silver next month.
I’ll see you in the comments to talk about Eleanor’s horrible stepdad and her vanilla-wearing mother, Park’s parents, the pacing and timeline of the novel, Omaha and 1986, and anything else you think I left out. What’s your take on the book’s literary merit? Is it more than just the zeitgeisty book that made everyone cry this year? Tell us what you think!