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Book Review: Eleanor and Park

By (July 23, 2013) One Comment

Eleanor and Parkeleanor and park

Rainbow Rowell

St. Martins, 2013


“I hope you like the Smiths,” said my boyfriend, learning that I was about to read a teen novel set in the 1980s. Admittedly, I grabbed Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park at random from a shelf that promised numerous other tales of love-struck teens and hormonal high school journeys. The protagonists, Eleanor and Park, aren’t vampires. They’re not from another planet, and they have no incurable ailments. These two teens are your standard shrink-wrapped misfits, bringing with them the predictable pop culture baggage.

The reader meets them in August of 1986. Eleanor is a chubby redhead who boards the school bus as a transfer student. She is quiet, bizarrely dressed, and seemingly more mature than her new, spit-ball throwing classmates. The bus driver, foot off the gas while she stands, yells for her to sit. Rows of unfamiliar peers refuse her a seat. Park, popular for having dated a “demon” named Tina, is embarrassed for Eleanor. He risks the in-crowd’s scrutiny when he barks for “the bozo” to sit with him.

Sitting together on the bus becomes their unspoken understanding (they share some classes, too, but decide not to interact–just occasionally stare at each other). Blaring music from his headphones and reading comic books in his lap, Park eventually notices Eleanor reading along. He begins slipping her issues of Watchmen, Uncanny X-Men, and Swamp Thing. We see what neither Eleanor nor Park can–the budding of mutual infatuation.

References to comic books, films like Aliens and Apocalypse Now and yes, even The Smiths, make for pleasant surprises. Yet when characters aren’t discussing pop culture or pensively staring at one another, all that remains is the insipid dating game of cat and mouse. Rest assured, the book wouldn’t be called Eleanor and Park if the two never become an item. Eleanor stops thinking of him as the “stupid” boy from school; Park goes from seeing her as “weird” to something more intriguing: “She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

What does Eleanor make the reader feel? The answer is nothing. The reader feels nothing, because she’s as interesting as a snoozing tortoise. She makes a conscious effort not to acknowledge the opinions of others; an emotional backlash would only embolden Tina, her nemesis. Crawling into a shell, however, only gets her poked more. And once Park draws her out, she’s as vulnerable to high school drama as anyone:

When she saw Park on Monday morning, she started giggling. Seriously, giggling like a cartoon character…when their cheeks get all red, and little hearts start popping out of their ears… It was ridiculous.

Any girl on the bus can giggle absurdly. Without Eleanor’s weird mystique, all that remains are the droppings of puppy love. Eleanor’s abusive stepfather brings gravity to a fluffy “does he like me like meplot. This is a chance for Rowell’s novel to gain substance. Eleanor wakes from a troubled night and fears for her mother’s life. She flatly exclaims:

That demon. That bastard. Her mother was standing at the stove, standing more still than usual. You couldn’t not notice the bruise on the side of her face. Or the hickey under her chin. (That fuck, that fuck, that fuck.)

Continuous drops of the “f-bomb” might tickle many adolescent readers. But this, and more aggressively colorful vocabulary, undermines the seriousness of Eleanor’s situation. Rowell dumbs down the diction, compromising her prose for cheap titillation. Far from an emotional roller coaster, Eleanor and Park is more like the Disneyland Teacups.The twists and turns are predictable; though romanticized, it’s dizzyingly simple and redundant. For its intended teen audience, it’s a way to kill time.

Rowell’s characters aren’t paranormal, remember. Nor are they from another world. Eleanor and Park are, in the words of The Smiths, “human” and “need to be loved, just like everybody else does.” And that’s their problem.