I bought this book almost at random. I was looking for interesting YA books at Kinokuniya, and the cover intrigued me. Because of the headphones. And the redhead. So maybe I have a thing for redheads. It wasn't until after I bought the book that I found out how well-received it was. Not that it mattered; I always approach a new book ready to fall in love.
In essence, Eleanor & Park is about first love, about puppy love. In my language, we call it cinta monyet (monkey love). Unlike Romeo & Juliet, however, the protagonists do not fall in love at first sight. In fact, they are discomfited by each other's presence. And like all stories of first loves, this one hangs on to the promise of forever, though everyone knows the improbability of its very concept.
I don't really care about what other people say about a book when I'm reading it, but in certain cases, like this one, I checked out reviews on Eleanor & Park on Goodreads. Which brought about more conflicting emotions. There's nothing inherently wrong about the writing; the prose is clean if somewhat juvenile. There's a difference between using a teenage narrative voice and talking down to teenagers who read the book, and this one edges too close to the latter.
It's not about the writing, though. It's the story itself. Eleanor is what one would call a white trash. Flaming red & unruly hair, plus-sized (it's never clear if she's plump or fat), a stepfather who abuses her mother and a mother who is so trapped in an abusive marriage, she cannot even think about escaping, four younger siblings who all share the same room with Eleanor, weird sense of fashion because that's all she can afford. Park, on the other hand, is half Korean (his mom) and half Irish (his dad), but like his name, looks totally Asian. He has a younger brother named Josh, who, like his name, looks totally Caucasian.
Don't tell me you don't find anything wrong with that last statement.
Anyway. Park's mom, despite being Korean, comes off with a more Vietnamese vibe, but then again, Asian is Asian is Asian. Park doesn't really mix around with others but, the fact that his dad's family has deep roots in the community, he doesn't get teased or bullied. In 1986 America, where racial segregation was still an issue.
Let me backtrack. How the heck does a couple from different races produce children where one's fully Asian, and the other apparently fully Caucasian? Is it like eye or hair color or even blood type?
Hence, my first problem with this book.
Back to where I was. Park doesn't hang out with others other than his 'best friend' Cal (who the author forgot about from the middle of the book onward), listens to rock and punk music all the time, and loves comic books. For the record, I love how Ms Rowell uses comic books as a reference instead of the usual Catcher in the Rye or Charlotte's Web or Jane Eyre or other American classics that other American authors seem to love to mention to show how literate their protagonists are.
The stage is set. Two protagonists who are ripe to be social outcasts. The more gushing and eloquent reviews mention the inclusivity of diversity in this novel. Right now people are talking about diversity in YA, about how they want to see more protagonists who are persons of color (PoC) – I still consider PoC a derogatory term – and female protagonists who don't fit the typical cheerleader and/or bookworm-overachiever mold. To put it bluntly, this is what I think the author is capitalizing on. Her characters feel like props customized to fit the story. They don't feel…organic. Eleanor could have been a Goth or a gleek, and it would not have changed the story. Park could have been the whitest White kid, and it wouldn't have changed the story. The only reason he's Asian (other than his name) is because Eleanor keeps reminding us every couple of chapters or so – stupid Asian kid, grinning until his eyes disappears, straight black hair, skin like sunshine seen through honey (I love this reference, by the way).
The way the romance in this book unfolds, stealing the words from John Green (from his book The Fault in Our Stars), is like falling asleep: slowly at first, then all at once. Park gives up the aisle side of his seat in the bus because he pities the new girl, who is not welcomed to occupy any other seats. Eleanor thinks Park is weird. After a few rides, he notices she's stealing glances at the comics he's reading, but instead of offering to read together, he just opens the comics wider and keeps on the same pages longer. Then he leaves a stack of comics on her seat beside his for her to take home. Eventually they talk about music after he notices a song title on her book. Then he makes her a mix tape and supplies her with batteries for her Walkman at home. When Park realizes he likes Eleanor, he has reservations at first; he doesn't know how not to be embarrassed about it. And then he's completely in love and is willing to go to the ends of Earth for her. Park is a giver. He's definitely a giver.
Eleanor, on the other hand, takes, takes, takes. She doesn't like him at first because he's this weird Asian kid. Yes, I understand that she's afraid to open up to others because she doesn't want to know that her stepdad hits her mom and is angry all the time. She doesn't want to know that her family is dirt-poor and she wears Goodwill clothes. And when she's in love with Park, she doesn't want her family to poison that one pure thing she has, so she keeps him a secret from even her siblings. However, even at the end of the book, she only thinks about herself. Eleanor comes first. Eleanor comes second. Eleanor comes last. Me, me, me.
Park's family, despite his Korean mom, is as White American as it gets. Boring. Very blah. Eleanor's family. However, is a goldmine that, sadly, has been underplayed. Her mother is a gone case, that much is clear, but she's a loose end that should have been tied. Her younger siblings…well, if they never existed, the story would not have changed. Not even a bit. Which is a shame, as they would have added depth to Eleanor's shallowness if their characters had been employed properly.
As far as modern YA books go, Eleanor & Park plays it mild and safe. Lots of kisses and groping hands, one scene with alcohol and joint, but that's it. The main characters don't even smoke. The alternating perspectives between Eleanor and Park, albeit single-voiced, are well-played. The exchanges between the main characters are adorable, and sometimes brilliant. Other than that, however, I don't get why people are all gushy about this book. Maybe it's because the John Green gave it a glowing review, and that kinda clouded people's judgment. Maybe it's because there's an Asian and a plump outcast girl as main characters, reaching out to other outcast girls who want their own Park.
To me, this book doesn't reach its potential. Eleanor, at the end of the story, is the same as how she begins. She doesn't change. Park finds the courage to stand up for what he believes in, but this story is more about Eleanor than it is about Park. And there are too many loose ends. What happens to Eleanor's two Black friends? Or her mother and her younger siblings? We know what happens to their frienemies Tina and Steve, but other important named characters? Forgotten when the author devised an ending aimed to make readers cry. I love tear-jerker endings, but this one falls flat.
Oh. And the overuse of "practically"? Definitely did not appreciate that.
If you're looking for a book that has both diversity in YA and a much better read, check out Adorkable by Sara Manning. Even with the British humor, even with the elements that's more adult than YA, it's a much stronger book with similar protagonists.