First admission, I loved Eleanor & Park, despite not believing it is a great book. It has been a while since I have read a YA novel that I felt had a legitimate emotional impact on me. Rowell’s first foray into the genre captures an exceptional sweetness without overdoing and avoids some cliche traps with a degree of deftness. She clearly has not yet forgotten what it is like to be an adolescent and has a sharp eye for the finer details of the teenage experience, rendering a number of heartbreakingly beautiful moments that make it hard not feel for the two main characters. At the same time, there are aspects to the story that remain unsatisfying, while it is clear that the writer is one talented author who is ascending as a voice in the genre.
Second admission, I am no doubt colored by nostalgia in my enjoyment of the book. Having grown up during the 80s, there were so many little flourishes and references that spoke to me reminiscently, making it a lot easier to enjoy the story. Rowell definitely fashioned the overall world with an indie-teen authenticity from the period. She couldn’t have picked better music to serve almost as a soundtrack to the story of two kids just on the outside of the popular main. Plus, all of the comic book references are both insightful and revealing as to the taste and temper of the characters to anyone familiar. In many ways, this book transported me back into my own youth.
Third admission, I probably would never have picked up this book if it weren’t for a great librarian. As a high school English teacher, I like to be aware of what really grabs student readers, and I like a lot of YA literature I have read, even advocating for it among my colleagues. However, I pretend no real expertise in the genre. Still, the librarian where I work wanted to open up out summer reading efforts, expanding both the list of titles and how we approached encouraging kids to read. Thus, this title found its way onto a list with a number of others. The short blurb caught my eye, and I volunteered to lead a forthcoming discussion for Eleanor & Park, something I actually look forward to doing in the fall.
There are so many things to like, even love, about this novel. Rowell walks an incredibly fine line between trying to represent an authentic world in which teens inhabit, while maintaining a kind of sweet innocence. She is laudable in her show of restraint and embracing of that innocence.
The two teens who find themselves in love with one another are awkward and unsure, bundles of insecurity, finding there way through the feelings and attraction they have for the other. Clearly, each are wrestling with their first, serious love, full of all the extremes and desperation those encounters trigger. They stumble through the physical moments when they find themselves alone together. Eleanor and Park are so self-conscious they cannot mask the naivety of their few romantic encounters, making them all the more endearing. Plus, neither can really breathe in the presence of the other nor when they are apart. They are both drunk on the other but too fragile and aware to fall into genuine recklessness or complete abandon. The stakes are just too terribly high in this uncharted territory they are navigating individually and as a couple.
In terms of provoking outrage, this book is actually quite tame, despite there being some dustups. I did immediately wonder what kind of backlash might be stirred after seeing the first F-bomb at the bottom of page one. I suppose if Rowell hadn’t piqued some narrow-minded adults, she probably wasn’t doing her job properly. Yet, this book manages to deal with some uglier sides of life in a way that is both sensitive and adroit. The main characters, for instance, generally recoil at profanity, even though they occasionally succumb to using it. Plus, the darkest, most vulgar, language is reserved for the least likable and antagonistic character of the book, amplifying his seedier and sadistic qualities.
Truth, a YA book with any ambition of trying to truly capture the world in which teens live and represent in an authentic way, for the intended audience, has to include content and themes that include foul language, sexuality, limit-pushing, and the like. If not, how could anyone take it seriously. The fact that Eleanor & Park is set in the 1980s almost provides the safety of quaintness, in comparison to themes that are more prevalent in the life of teens today. Most of all, however, there is little in this novel that attempts to be very provocative, which is one of its more admirable qualities. There were places where the story could have taken a much darker turn, especially between Eleanor and her step-father Richie. Yet, the author showed restraint, to her credit, and avoided any content that would invite sensationalism. Instead she delivers a truly sweet story about first love and its consequences.
Still, as much as I loved the book it has the markings of a debut, if only one in a specific genre. There are places where Rowell’s technique seemed to be showing, for lack of better term. For example, it takes the first 100 pages or so for the relationship between Eleanor and Park to develop, yet it seemed almost rushed, as if steps were skipped or omitted. Similarly, certain plot devices seemed almost too obvious, like Park’s parents veiled arguing over his getting a driver’s license “in case of emergency,” in preparation for Eleanor’s crucial emergency pages later.
Also, the shifting character perspectives proved to be a great idea, admirable and interesting, but with more mixed results. Rowell’s control and craft truly sing with Eleanor. There is something about that character that clearly burrowed into the author, whether it be semi-autobiographical or not. Eleanor breathes with a richer spectrum of colors than does Park. It is not that Rowel is unsuccessful with Park or that he is not three-dimensional, but he seems more muted, maybe even borrowed, in comparison to Eleanor. This despite each coming with a different set of luggage, but baggage nonetheless.
Perhaps the most unsatisfying element was the ending. It was not so much what happened as much as how it happened. Their parting was nearly more rapid than it was inevitable, and in that speed there was just so much left wanting. The last 10 pages are so simply seemed less believable, not mention that if it did play out that way it seems to almost cheapen the relationship. In a way it kind of mirrored the beginning, almost missing bits.
On balance, however, I feel like any of my criticisms are mild and can just as easily be chalked up to Rowell’s adjusting to the genre and wrestling with just how sophisticated or complex to make things while still trying to reach the intended audience. Perhaps, I desired a book with a more adult complexity and nuance – wanting it to be more of a book that it was not intended to be. While this novel certainly has a sophistication to it, it is still a YA title. All that being said, I still found it moving and rather loved it, in spite of any critical thoughts I might have. In fact, I am very likely to read Rowell again, which is the best compliment.