What We’re Reading Wednesday: Eleanor and Park

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin 2013):

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Linking up with Housewifespice and the others!

I can see why the American Library Association Young Adult Library Services people gave this

book a Printz Honor Award. The writing is superb; the emotions true. Told in alternating perspectives

between the tow titular leads, this young adult novel pours out the contents of a bottle of a moment in time.

Eleanor, a high school junior, has just returned to her messed-up family’s fold after a year away. Not

svelte, and not Barbie-blonde, Eleanor is quickly pegged as the weird girl by the bus riders and roundly

mocked for her crazy red hair, odd fashion choices and standoffish demeanor. Finding a seat with Park, the

socially safe (because of his richer ZIP code), comes to be Eleanor’s saving grace. Over the Fall semester,

they quietly bond over the comics Park lets her read on the way to school. In a slow, delicious burn,

Eleanor and Park fall for each other and capture the essence of the eclipsing nature of a first love.

But while Eleanor’s happiness increases, her home life is in a downward spiral. Her mom’s

married to a nasty drunk of a guy who barely tolerates her and her four younger siblings. As most young

adult novels do, this difficult, depressing situation comes to an ugly head, forcing Eleanor to discover a

better path for her own salvation—better than the incredible boy who is so incredible by virtue of his

normalness.
From a literary point of view, Eleanor and Park is deficient in small, minor ways: the twist of the

climax should have been telegraphed—at least subtly—rather than coming as a sort of tacked on surprise to

be the straw that breaks Eleanor’s back into leaving; you never do get a satisfactory resolution about what

happens to Eleanor’s mom or the little kids; and the intensity of Eleanor and Park’s relationship goes

beyond giddy-first-love and into unhealthy Twilight-esque realms. Also, this book’s key problem depends

on the setting: in suburban Omaha in the 1980s. The characters and romance are strong enough to let most

readers immerse themselves in this foreign-to-them time period; but to others, the timeframe is could pose

a big disconnect: “Why doesn’t Eleanor or the school counselor call Women in Distress.” and “This would

be so different with texts and emails and smartphones.”

From a Catholic point of view, Eleanor and Park is a mixed bag. Park’s love for Eleanor is not

your typical teenage boy-hound-dog kind of lust; he wants to protect her, he doesn’t want to use her for his

own sake, and he welcomes her into his family. Now, he is a teenage boy of no discernible faith tradition,

so boundaries get pushed—but not until the final third of the book. For more than one hundred pages, the

relationship progresses without so much as a kiss. Eleanor, with no discernible faith background of her

own, has no framework with which to make moral decisions, or to draw upon in times of despair. But she

does love her family. Finally, Eleanor’s mom will require discussion with a reader. True to life, the mom

doesn’t want to leave her husband, and is so blinded by her dependency on him that she doesn’t see how

she is failing her children. A sentence at the end gives you hope that perhaps she does leave the awful guy,

but it doesn’t feel like enough. Oh, and there’s some cursing. But in a great, quick-make-sure-you-
rereading-every-word line, Park narrates that except for his family, all his friends’ parents are divorced, and

that divorce has caused all of their biggest problems. Being inside the head of a 17-year-old guy means

such an insight isn’t organically expounded upon, but a good detail to come back to with a teen reader.

Overall, I would recommend this book to teens ages 16 and up; possibly a mature 14 or 15 with a parent

or other trusted adult figure reading along or aware of the contents and themes. Though Eleanor and Park

don’t make the choices we’d want our teens to (especially regarding chastity), they do show others the

good amid the bad. Touching upon discrimination, bullying, and love as a healer amid breakdown, this

book is a contained mess of life spilled out. This article in Time explains how reading

fiction can help kids and teens be even more sensitive to others. Additionally, they’ll have to encounter the

real world at some point, and books like Eleanor and Park can be a safe window in which to glimpse the

issues they’ll likely have to engage with. I’m a firm believer that if you engage with your teens about the

content and choices of book, they can still enjoy a good read without risking their soul.

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2 thoughts on “What We’re Reading Wednesday: Eleanor and Park

    • I know! It’s not entirely tame, but I felt for the most part the author pulled back from the more scandalous moments rather than be overtly explicit.

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