Warning: my book reviews usually contain spoilers.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is a novel about a sweet and innocent first love between two high school kids. I have heard raving reviews from friends and don’t get me wrong, the novel is good. The main characters are interesting, the story has a charming tone, and there are quite a lot of profound quotes I can draw from it… I just thought it would be better.
All the ingredients seemed to be in place: a girl with a dysfunctional family and a good-looking (but he doesn’t know he’s good-looking, of course) boy who kicks ass in kung fu. They bond over X-men and cassette tapes of The Smiths. It’s like The Breakfast Club squished into two characters. Who doesn’t want a love story about two misfits finding a deeper existence in each other?
I never really caught onto why Eleanor and Park fell so deeply in love in the first place, but once the fire was lit, it burned to the end of the novel. Park is so corny sometimes I cringe while reading. I try to remember that this is 1986, but I was never alive then so I have no idea if people actually talked like that. Towards the end, it felt like it was the end of the world, the star-crossed lovers forced to separate! But not really, because Eleanor and Park are only 16, and when you are 16 everything seems like a big deal (so please, spare me how you live and breathe for each other).
The three things I found most interesting from this book were Park being Asian, Eleanor’s femininity, and love as portrayed by parents.
Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.
You look like a girl
Are you trying to come up with a super-hot Asian guy, so you can prove me wrong? Because there aren’t any. I’ve had my whole life to think about this.
Park is described to be a stud, although he seems to have no idea. The most popular girl has a thing for him, the girl his friend likes is interested in him, and so does the girl who works at the music store, etc. I had assumed he was confident about his own identity, so it was surprising when he showed his insecurities related to being a minority. I found it especially entertaining when he started wearing eyeliner (he was made to be a kpop star!).
Park’s idea of masculinity is different from his father, who is a war veteran. I suppose this is a good moment to point out that Park is of a mixed race (no wonder he is a stud?) since his mother is full Korean. Although his rant was short, Park brought out interesting points about the lack of male Asian representation in media and the seemingly “exotic” appeal of Asian women. Even though Park is technically only half-Asian, his insecurities on being “the Asian kid” (who also does kung-fu, ha!) brought me back to my own childhood.
Growing up, I was one of the only Asian kids in my neighbourhood. My classmates had no idea what Hello Kitty was and had never seen a mechanical pencil before (“It’s a pen!”). Because my mom was very active in volunteering for my school, the other kids quickly caught onto Chinese New Year festivities (“Gung Hay Fat Choy Mrs. Chan!”) and I never had to deal with unpleasant racism inside or outside of the classroom.
But during my middle school years, I certainly felt it- a small gap between my friends and I that I could never seem to fill, and this was not our faults at all. The ways we were brought up were simply different. I spent my Saturdays at Chinese school while they practiced soccer and volleyball. I spent my summer in HK while they stayed in cabins. I watched anime and they watched Gossip Girl. The gaps in our interests continued to widen, and soon being in the same class became one of the very few threads that connected our friendships together.
Not a princess but a damsel in distress
You saved my life, she tried to tell him. Not forever, not for good. Probably just temporarily. But you saved my life, and now I’m yours. The me that’s me right now is yours. Always.
Eleanor is not a strong person, but that is also part of the reason why I like her. She is only 16, but has to juggle an abusive stepfather, a submissive mother, and all her younger siblings in a house that has no table or washroom door. I give her props for just enduring it. On top of that, she is a victim of school bullying, so it is no wonder she finds a wonderful escape in Park. At the same time, her dependency on Park is a reason I don’t like her as much as I could have.
Eleanor is described to look eccentric and because she is poor, her wardrobe consists of oversized shirts and baggy pants. It is interesting how Rowell conjures up a delicate and feminine image for Park, but a stocky and manly image for Eleanor. Even though Eleanor doesn’t look or act like a princess, she’s certainly a damsel in distress and Park is more than happy to rescue her in the limited ways a 16-year-old can.
I liked Eleanor the most when she decides to run away from home, leaving her mother and her siblings in the aftermath. In her mind, she knew she should go back for them, but in the situation she could only think about running away by herself. That selfishness, desperation, and guilt was what made her feel like a real person to me.
Mom and Dad, What is Love?
What are the chances you’d ever meet someone like that? he wondered. Someone you could love forever, someone who would forever love you back? And what did you do when that person was born half a world away? The math seemed impossible.
Eleanor and Park’s love seemed to last forever if it wasn’t for the situation. I think a lot of this has to do with the different portrayals of love Park and Eleanor learn from their own parents. Park’s parents are passionate, always making out in the kitchen as if forever swept up in the wartimes. Eleanor’s parents are hushed and violent behind closed doors.
As children, we learn so much from our parents and how to love someone is one of these lessons. I wonder if Eleanor’s disposition to be a damsel in distress was learned from her mother, and if Park’s desire to rescue Eleanor and take her away is learned from his father.
In the end, I choose to believe in a happy ending for Eleanor and Park, although one of my favorite excerpts from the book was the very first page where Park gives up on her. Nobody expects a first love to last, so when it does, it is a miracle of miracles.