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Eleanor & Park: Love Will Tear Us Apart

Cover art Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Press, February 2013
Reviewed from Final Copy

[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!

About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.


  1. Elizabeth Burns says:

    While I liked E&P, I didn’t love it with the passion that I’ve seen other readers embrace it. For me, it’s mainly that (if on real committee) I would have to be convinced. I found it a nice story, I loved the look at young love, and the writing brought me right into that wonderful feeling of “oh, when fingers brush each other….”

    While I found Eleanor’s mother to be believable within the book, I personally despised her. I don’t think this colored my reading that much, except to reinforce how few options Eleanor had in terms of her home life. Still, I had no sympathy for the woman whatsoever — as contrasted to, say, the mother in SCOWLER who I felt some sympathy for. (I know, not comparing.)

  2. I liked this one a lot when I read it, but I’m less enamored now. One immediate criticism I had was that it touched on so many Issues that it felt a bit overdone/deliberate, and I read that as intrusive author presence.

    Another thing that I’ve realized in the time since I’ve read it is that, despite the pop culture references, this book doesn’t feel like it took place 25 years ago. To me, it feels – in both issues addressed and in tone – like a contemporary story about two teens obsessed with pop culture from before they were born.

    The emotion is timeless, though, and it feels very real. I think that’s the novel’s strongest point.

  3. It has endlessly fascinated me that so much of the discussion about this book — not just here, but all around the book-internet — leads off pointing out that John Green wrote a glowing review for it in the NYT. That’s not a criticism of this review, nor does it indicate anything about the book itself. It’s just interesting that THAT is something people continue to point out.

    As a Printz contender, there’s definitely merit when it comes to voice and authenticity. But one of the things about this book for me is something Liz brought up: I really liked it — I’d go as far as to say I LOVED it — when I first read it. But the further I’ve gotten from this book, the less I remember about it except that it was set in the 1980s and it was a romance that was sweet. It was a great read when I read it but the staying power of it was minimal. Which, of course, not necessarily a Printz criteria, though perhaps it is worth questioning whether this is a novel that endures beyond how it made a reader feel.

    I think your point about “squee-good” vs “literary good” is going to be the biggest talking point for this particular book. I don’t remember the literary aspects much. Perhaps this is a positive thing — they didn’t “get in the way” of my reading experience. But perhaps it’s also not a positive thing — they didn’t stand out or stick with me. I didn’t think there was anything memorable or noteworthy that lingered in the year since I read it.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      As for John Green, he has the attention of non-YA, pop savvy folks because he’s the author of wildly successful books for teens that aren’t about vampires, wizards, or savior teens in dystopias. This alone would get him mainstream media attention, but his loyal fan following has given him power and cache (he sold out Carnegie Hall!) that is unusual for any author.

      His status in the mainstream media right now means that it is really important that he wrote a positive review of E&P. He’s a very public face of YA lit, so when he endorses another YA novel by an author who is just starting to come up in a widely read, national paper, it’s a clear indication that this author is getting big attention beyond the norm. He’s got brand power–kind of like a YA Oprah–so I don’t read more into it than that. (We can talk endlessly though about why John Green is the non-genre face of YA, but that’s another post).

      Switching gears… it seems that a lot of people have found that they love this book as they’re reading it but that it doesn’t stay with them. Personally, I thought about this book for months after I first read it. I couldn’t stop talking about it and made it my pick for my school’s faculty recommendation list for summer reading. I found then, and now, that the emotional impact lingered but so did other aspects of the novel: the use of space and setting, the subtle class and racial divide in the school, how the sense of time is affected by the book’s structure and pacing. All of these things lingered at the back of my mind. Over the summer, just before I listened to the audiobook, I began to doubt if the book was really as good as I remembered it–memory is never a reliable tool for criticism. As I listened many of the problems I have with the novel came to the fore, such as the weak tertiary characters, but it also reminded me of the book’s strengths. My second reading of the text (for this review) is when I dug in to pinpoint the “literariness.”

      Whether it has what it takes for top honors this year remains up to the Real Committee. I’m not even sure that I could say that its literary merits top those of other novels this year. But I will definitely argue that those literary merits are there.

  4. I was a little late to the party on this book, but I did enjoy it. I didn’t LOVE it the way many did, but I enjoyed it a lot. I found the treatment of Eleanor’s family dynamic and her problems with Richie pretty realistic. Echoing the comments above, I found the book to be less about living in 1986 and reflective of modern kids obsessed with past pop culture. I also found the stylized dialect of the African-American characters problematic myself, though the portrayal of Park and his relationship to being Korean was done well. I found the authorial voice intrusive at times, which was distracting, and occasionally I had trouble distinguishing between Eleanor’s and Park’s narratives.

    This book felt like an “in the moment” read to me as well. I liked it while reading it, but I don’t reflect upon it, and I didn’t contemplate it when I wasn’t reading it at work or elsewhere. The writing and turn of events, particularly toward the end, felt very symptomatic of a TV show to me. I don’t care for that. The style of it was a little too witty and snappy, and things occurred in ways that seemed just a little on the side of convenient or outlandish at times.

    While I found all of these things to be slight wrinkles, I wouldn’t consider them huge deficiencies. These issues just cause me to say that I wouldn’t give this top honors myself. I would recommend readily to anyone though. It was a good story with a lot to say. I’m just not sure it merits real excellence.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      I’m really fascinated by the idea that Eleanor and Park felt like contemporary teens who are obsessed with older pop culture. Could you address how it seemed more 2013 than 1986? I didn’t get that from the text, but I’m curious to hear what you found. I can’t get assess 1986 authenticity because I wasn’t a teen then, but I can’t say that Eleanor and Park, or the other teens, struck me as 2013.

      • Elizabeth Burns says:

        I’m not that much older than Eleanor & Park — I guess I wonder, how different are teens from 1986 supposed to sound compared to 2013? I think the problem may be that teens aren’t that different, except for surface things, so change the surface (what teens are obsessed with, how they interact with their tech) yet the teens remain the same. Perhaps with distance a different assessment of teens today may be made. I think a stronger argument could be made for different eras (teens in pre-birth control era, for example, versus those after) than the ones at issue here.

        The pop culture did a good job of establishing a place and a time, and a real connection with readers. The decision of when or when not to use “real” pop culture or cultural icons is a tough one; does an author invent, which allows for more timelessness and less margin for error? But then, that distances the reader from the pop culture.

        • Joy Piedmont says:

          You raise an interesting point regarding the references. Something I had in my original draft, but ended up deleting, was a comparison to Jane Austen’s novels and her use of cultural references. A reader doesn’t need to have read Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho to understand the various ways that novel, and her other reading, influences Catherine Morland’s life. Udolpho would have been about twenty years old by the time Northanger was published. Most readers would get the reference, but it’s not a given that all would. This is similar to how Rowell uses her references in the novel. They aren’t used superficially; they are important to understanding a situation or character, but a reader’s experience is not diminished if they don’t.

          At the end of the novel, when Park wonders if Eleanor had read the last issue of Watchmen, he specifically thinks of the quote, “nothing ever ends.” The quote speaks for itself; readers unfamiliar with Watchmen will still be right there with Park, wondering if Eleanor thinks their relationship is truly over. However, if you have read Watchmen (and I have), that quote resonates beyond the words themselves.

          At the end of Watchmen (spoilers, natch) Ozymandias believes he has sacrificed the lives of many to save the entire world. He asks Dr. Manhattan (an all-knowing, god-like being) if he, “did the right thing … It all worked out in the end.” This is when Dr. Manhattan says, “Nothing ever ends.” The reader, as well as Ozymandias, are left to wonder if he did indeed make a sacrifice or if he is just a mass murderer. When Rowell uses this quote in the penultimate chapter of the book, it’s especially poignant because of course Park is hoping that even though they made a decision that has devastated them both, they can’t judge if they were right or wrong. Park’s probably hoping that Eleanor is taking that wider, omniscient view of the world, that we can’t qualify our actions in the moment because things just keep going, that they will keep going.

          In fact (!), I’ve just had an epiphany as to what I think the three words are in the postcard! I REALLY want it to be that Eleanor wrote to Park, “nothing ever ends.” Okay, that is officially my head canon.

          I’m off the rails, but short answer: authors should always use real-world references when it comes to culture. If done well, it will always allow for a deep intertextual reading.

      • I can only speak for myself, but I read the pop culture references as a direct outgrowth of a lot of cultural commentary found in so many places on the internet today. It felt nostalgic instead of specifically of its time, as if it were very conscious of its historical status.

  5. Karyn Silverman says:

    I want E&P to be a top 10 for BFYA. I really liked it, I cried, I enjoyed the references that were so much a part of my own childhood and adolescence. But it felt a little thin to me too, when it comes to literary merit. Maybe it’s just that we don’t think pop-culture infused narratives can be award-worthy? Or first love? Or maybe it’s that it’s sweet but not as substantial as I at least want in an award winner? I also thought Fangirl was much better, and yes, no comparing, but it made E&P pale in comparison. Really I just don’t see this going the distance but that Libra on my shoulders is wondering if that’s me being a snob because it has mass appeal and huge sales and the John Green seal of approval?

    • I feel precisely the opposite: Fangirl was a much, much weaker novel comparatively. I think there were too many plot threads too thinly developed, and some of the writing itself made me cringe because it wasn’t quite polished and felt a little too try-hard on the humor/lightness. I can’t say I felt that way reading Eleanor & Park, which felt much more tightly edited and constructed, with the plot lines more focused.

      There’s no doubt in my mind both the Rowell books this year are BFYA titles, and I think I agree with you, Karyn, that E&P should be a top 10 BFYA. But Printz….I think it was just too much of a commercial novel, vs. a literary novel. And yes, commercial novels have been Printz silver and gold earners before (looking at you, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging), but I can’t help thinking about what makes E&P’s story more of a Printz-potential title than, say, Sarah Dessen’s excellent The Moon and More this year. I can’t help wonder if a lot of the buzz is because of promotion and marketing and the reach it had. It’s not a detriment to the appeal and strength of the book itself, but what makes it more literary and more of a contender than Dessen’s? Her book also showcased great voice, a tight plot, authenticity, and everything else pointed out as weighing favorable for E&P?

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      I do think that when it comes to awards we, as a society, privilege a certain kind of art. We reward serious over light, ambitious over simple.

      Love and relationships are complex; they’re messy and complicated; they’re life changing, and with rare exceptions, they are universal. Love is something we all understand and have some experience with. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to dismiss it as an easy subject? There aren’t easy answers here and it’s all speculation anyway.

      Personally, I think first love is a really ambitious topic. To capture how every look and touch and moment feels so important? What Rainbow Rowell does is extraordinary. And she convinces us of the growing attraction between these characters in third person. She doesn’t have the cushion of first person (which certainly helps authors connect with the reader) and she still manages to make Eleanor and Park’s feelings immediate and intimate. The alternating perspectives also allows her to pick up or slow the pace depending on the situation. Some sections are only a sentence or two long, mimicking that feeling of needing to catch your breath when you’re so caught up in an intense moment with someone. The morning after their first kiss, we get Eleanor and Park’s perspectives in rapid succession which has the effect of putting us in a kind of hazy dream-like state, and it also emphasizes how all that’s important to them in that moment is each other.

      • Elizabeth Burns says:

        this may be the most convincing argument I’ve seen yet for why E&P should be pushed towards the front of contenders!

  6. Karyn Silverman says:

    Everyone always cites Angus as the commercial novel that could, but think about the language in that book — Georgia has practically made up her own language! I always thought that while the plot was light and fluffy, the language and the use of humor and the really thoughtful examination of girlness were the things that made it stand out and have Printz qualities. And it was the first thing like it — there was a ton that came after, and there was Bridget Jones and her clones in the adult field, but no one had done it for YA before. I can’t make any claims like that for E&P; we’ve seen most of this before, and it’s not doing anything really novel, the way Angus did with language.

    Kelly, what I liked in Fangirl was partially that I loved it as a romance (ie, totally subjective, just worked for me), but where I think it stands out is in its exploration of independence. However, maybe a twin trying to find her own way and write her own stories after years of writing somebody else’s (ish) is too obvious. I actually wouldn’t put Fangirl forth as a top 5 for Printz-worthiness, I just thought it dug deeper than E&P* and avoided the over-reliance on pop culture as stand-in for character development; instead, Cath’s relationship to her fandom is indicative of deeper feelings of alienation and fear.

    (*I agree with Joy’s point that culture lets them make sense of their lives, but I disagree with how well it works in the novel; I think it’s just cheap shorthand; he wears black and listens to Joy Division and frankly, now I know exactly who he is because he’s a _type_,** even if he also happens to be Korean-American and grappling with race.)

    **rich text options for comments would be great; I feel like I’m back in the 90s, trying to indicate emphasis with characters instead of formatting.

    • I don’t disagree with your comments about Angus in the least. It’s marvelous in what it does on the language level, and frankly, the ability to sustain the level of humor it does and do so consistently while allowing us to get to KNOW Georgia Nicholson is definitely noteworthy. It’s just an easy one to point out as more commercial than, say, Where Things Come Back or In Darkness. I’m not arguing it as not a worthy Printz book, but rather, wondering why there aren’t more books with that level of commercial appeal seeing the light of Printz attention (again, when will Sarah Dessen’s books be looked at with this kind of critical eye — I think she’s overlooked frequently as too romance driven, too commercial, etc, when really, she does so many things on the Literary Level that other novels which are seen as Literary do too and could be read through the same lens that E&P is here).

      The romance in Fangirl I can’t argue with, and I agree, too, there is a lack of pop culture stand-in for character development there than in E&P. There’s less a type and more a full character with her own personal quirks and anxieties. But, there was far too much going ON in the book. It needed to remove a plot thread or two in order to feel as authentic or fully fleshed in terms of plot that E&P did. It just needed a tighter edit — one more round on that one could have made it much, much stronger.

      I’m with you on the use of pop culture in E&P completely. It felt like short hand, but I didn’t necessarily think that the story suffered for it in the way that I felt the characters in Fangirl lost out because of a bit too much in the plot. The weaknesses of the books were inverse of one another.

    • Elizabeth Burns says:

      I adore ANGUS and am still so pleased it got recognition. I think the Angus problem arises from a few things: that it turned into a series, and a non-overarcing-plot series, at that (tho, for a book about a young woman’s coming of age, what such plot could one have, once a book is realistic, not spy or fantasy?); that it was oft imitated, thus making the originality of it seem less with distance; a silly title; and, well, that its a female writing about the teen woman’s experience with humor, and while if it had been about George Nicholson it would be seen as a universal experience with humor, with reader appeal for all, as Georgia, it’s “only” about girls.

      ANGUS is what tells us that a book can be many things; one doesn’t exclude another; and that “simple” does not mean not complex, if that makes sense.

  7. If it comes to language and our choices are Angus or Eleanor, I vote for Eleanor without a second thought. Inventing dumb things to say does nothing for me. I don’t remember a better example of the gradual nature of falling in love that we see in Eleanor (and we are not even factoring in the nuanced racial differences-male Asians versus female Asians nor the socio economic factors that confront Eleanor and serve as a barrier). Eleanor deserves Printz recognition and if Fangirl also is honored, I will not be surprised but I think Eleanor is easily the better book.

    • On a critical level though, the language in Angus is inventive and creative, rather than “dumb.” I feel like that book takes so much slack for being a Printz honoree, and does so because of personal, rather than critical, reasons.

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        Agree! It’s inventive and purposeful; teen slang is part of independence and how they assert separation from other generations. Rennison’s genius is taking all these small, generally mundane details (slang, crushes, younger siblings) and exaggerating them just right to achieve comedic gold. Language is the most notable, but I still — what, 15 years later? — remember Libby and Angus.

  8. My reasons for not liking Angus are, indeed, personal–can’t help it (I am not arguing against its inclusion on the Printz, just recognizing that I would have to be convinced to include a book that is so NOT funny to me). Like Karyn, I still remember Angus; unlike Karyn, that is NOT a good thing (but it may be key to why it did indeed win a Printz honor)!

    What I think is missing in this conversation is akin to something Joy spoke of earlier. There is no place in the novel that a reader can point to and say, “This is the unique moment in which they fall in love.” It is seamless from beginning to end. Generally books that accomplish this feat make lists, get starred reviews, and win awards. AND there is more going on in this book than mere dialogue or simple love story–things that make this book unique and award worthy (ditto for Fangirl). Rowell has come out the gate fast!

    • Something I am wondering — and go with me knowing what I’ve said before and knowing that I think Joy did a solid job presenting an argument for this book — can readers separate the feelings they have for this book and those moments in this book from the book itself as a work of literature? A LOT of the praise for this book has come that it’s such a universal story. It has earned plenty of “best of” list places (the most, actually, of any book so far this year and yes, I have the stats on that). But is it possible to look at this book and remove the sentimentality and the nostalgia that it gives to readers, particularly ADULT readers who read this and understand and recognize those feelings as a special thing? I certainly am not arguing teens wouldn’t read this and have that moment, but with our adult eyes, it is a different recognition. It is flavored with nostalgia, with the “remember those days,” even without the pop culture and setting in the 1980s (which was completely irrelevant to me, having been born a couple years prior to when the book was set — all of that was lost on me).

      I’m still not convinced. It’s a GREAT book. It deserves the recognition it has earned. But I have a hard time finding what it is on the literary level that makes it Printz-worthy. Especially when I compare this book to other books that DIDN’T benefit from the marketing that this one did which do similar things. Again, Dessen is a VERY easy go to for me because I thought The Moon and More was excellent. But what makes Rowell’s novel more literary, more enduring, more “Printz” worthy than Dessen’s? I can’t help think so much is wrapped in the adult feelings and the lack of praise, NYT love, massive marketing push that Rowell got for her book. I can’t remember another book in recent times where the marketing so heavily revolved around the fact that another major YA author “loved this book.” (Joy, your response above plays and played right into my bigger point here). It was used smartly, and I think it leaves an impact in how we read the book, intentionally or not.

      • I think you’re right, and a big chunk of this is marketing. Then again, I agree with you that it’s not such a worthy novel. There’s a possibility that it stands out more because this is a weak year, in my opinion. (To me, this novel in no way measures up to past Printz greats like Jellicoe Road and CNV.)

        Dessen might get overlooked because she’s developed a reputation for formula; I know I haven’t picked up any of her recent novels because I’d heard they were essentially repeats. But I have heard other good things about The Moon and More; I really need to pick it up now!

      • Joy Piedmont says:

        You are so right, Kelly. By it’s very nature, all literary criticism is subjective. It’s one person’s reading (I’m a firm believer in reader response over authorial intent). And hey, we’re all human so of course our readings are colored by our emotional response, our memory, and taste. No one can separate themselves from those things fully. I don’t think it’s possible.

        With a book like E&P which has inspired really strong emotional reactions from readers–myself included–AND a strong media campaign I think it’s really hard to critique the book away from all of the voices and noise. That’s what makes the committee process so great; discussion and debate are at the heart of the process which really allows a case to made for the lesser-known titles.

  9. @Beth (for some reason I can’t reply to you in the thread): I think you’re right too on this being a weaker year. So it stands out because of great marketing, being a good book (though again, not sold it’s Printz good), and because it stood out in a weak year.

    What’s wrong with formula, though, if it’s done well? If Printz is a measure of a novel on the basis of that novel’s merits, then formula shouldn’t matter since the book aren’t being compared against one another from year to year. Dessen may have a big of a formula, but she’s damn good at writing it. I will say that The Moon and More swings away from that norm, though, into something different.

    • Personally, I find it hard to be objective about a book if it strikes me as a retread of the book that came before it – but I also don’t find it to be particularly noteworthy on a literary level, either. Re: Dessen, the themes that I felt were integrated flawlessly in The Truth About Forever felt sloppy and simply swapped out for other catchphrases in later books, where they felt like clever gimmicks rather than seamlessly integrated themes born of a unique story.

      (I haven’t read a Dessen novel in a while, but I have a distinct memory of reading Lock and Key and being disappointed.)

      • But is that a problem of the book as it stands alone or a problem of bias having read other books? In other words, had you never read Dessen before, could you objectively make that call? I’m not disagreeing because I, too, have had the same experience, but that’s because I’ve read so many of her books. If I were a new reader, I don’t know coming to one of her books would have me thinking formula. I don’t even think I’d feel that way after reading two.

      • There were definitely moments that felt gimmicky that I think I’d have disliked regardless of knowledge of previous books, and some of those moments related to both the theme and the plot because Dessen ties them all together.

        I think one reason TTAF works is because it’s so unforced, so easy. Every element has a clear place in the narrative. I didn’t get that feeling from later books.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      I can’t speak to formula in Dessen’s novels, but I think it’s only a negative if the formula is boring, cliche, or conforms to problematic stereotypes. A non-literary example, how many times are they going to make the movie about the optimistic white teacher going to the inner-city to change the lives of the poor students of color?

      Formula can work though when the author is writing as though their doing variations on a theme. E&P sticks to a formula: boy and girl “meet cute” (okay, being stuck together on the bus isn’t really that “cute” but go with me here), boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl against the world, boy and girl against each other, boy and girl reconcile, boy and girl part. I’m pretty sure some iteration of this formula has played out in many, many books, movies, plays, and tv shows. What happens around that formula is what can make a book special.

  10. My major problem with this book is that I found Eleanor and Park to be completely indistinguishable. I often had to flip back to chapter headings to remind myself whose perspective I was supposed to be reading; to me, their voices sounded identical. As a potential contender, this is a huge stumbling block for me.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Hmm. I’m with Ed on this one. Although I agree that the voice used in their individual sections is similar, I saw that as a consistently executed authorial voice.

      The individual character voices were not difficult for me to distinguish because whenever I was in a particular section, I was seeing the world through Eleanor or Park’s eyes and they each have very different views and issues. Eleanor is essentially a pessimist while Park is an optimist. Before they get together, Eleanor is concerned with easing back into her home while Park struggles with his identity and familial relationships. Yeah, in dialogue they have similar cadences and word choice, but I always knew who was who because the characterization is so solid.

  11. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Just want to pop in to say how refreshing Rowell’s use of third person is in a sea of mediocre first person. Hope she starts a revolution with that.

  12. Distinguishing voices was NOT a problem I had.

  13. Can’t help but compare. If the committee couldn’t find it within themselves to give at least an honor to TFIOS, will they also overlook E&P

    • I think it’s important to remember that Printz is a literary award. While there may be a “best” YA book written in a year, it may not be the fit the criteria for literary excellence. In my opinion, E&P still has a chance as an honor book based on Printz criteria.

  14. The story highlights flaws, with Eleanor being FAT (wow SO FAT) and Park being… Asian. Personally, I feel that attention surrounding Park’s character is… offending. Fanart doesn’t help it either, drawing him with stereotypical slanted eyes. Eleanor’s compliments to him sound a little questionable too…

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Hi Anabelle, thanks for commenting. There’s been a lot of online discussion about the depiction of race and body image in this book. We haven’t really gone into that territory here, as we’ve focused more on the literary elements of the writing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  15. I really hope she reads this: Please make a second book! I dont care if there now 20, 30, or 1001 Just please make a next book. I loved this book and I couldnt stop reading. the ending was prctically a cliff hanger. This b yfar my favourite book a sequal and i’ll be satisfied. (if anyone has an contact to rainbow rowell please copy this,if youcan and send this to her) * pleasse!!!)


  1. […] Today on the Printz Blog I check my feels at the door to talk rainbowrowell’s Eleanor & Park.  […]

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