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Eleanor and Park

rowell_eleanor & parkRainbow Rowell’s nontraditional romance novel Eleanor and Park portrays a young love that is genuine in its intimacy and awkwardness, as well as the painful realities of life that are well beyond the control of the young protagonists. What are the entry points in the story for readers whose lives are very different from those of the two main characters, set in the 1980s? Why, do you think, has this book resonated so powerfully with young readers and critics alike?

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. Nicole Eslinger says:

    Although the circumstances of the the two protagonists in this novel may be very different from those of young readers today, the feelings experienced between these characters are familiar to everyone. The desire to be understood, to fit in, to find love, are universal. Even if a reader has never experienced the tragedies that Eleanor faces, Rowell crafts the character in a way that everyone can both empathize and relate with her. At times, we all feel different, scared, or alone. Rowell is so genuine in her portrayal of the relationship between Eleanor and Park that even if a young reader has not yet experienced first love, they can relate to the awkwardness of it and the desire for it.

    Despite the tragic situation, Eleanor and Park’s story provides hope. I believe that is why it resonates so strongly with both young adults and critics. The novel clearly demonstrates the powerful influence that just one person may have on another’s life. As Eleanor indicates in the book, she lives for Park. He is much of the reason she is able to survive under unspeakable circumstances. Not that he is her strength, but Park certainly helps Eleanor to find resilience within herself. Conversely, Eleanor seems to support Park in sharing his own identity with the world.

    Even as an adult, the novel was enjoyable to read. Although I have never experienced anything like either of the protagonists, exactly, I found myself drawing connections with both of them throughout the book.

  2. Kara Brennan says:

    Eleanor & Park is an incredibly realistic portrayal of being a teenager. Removing the specific hardships of the story (child abuse, racism, poverty) everyone should be able to relate to some aspect of this coming of age tail. The details of the story, between overwhelming first crushes, body image issues, bullying, gym class, and the perils of the school bus, are so clearly written I found myself being transported to moments from my past (good and bad) while reading. I can only imagine that reading this story while living in this potentially awkward and painful and exciting time would make it all the more vivid and relatable.

    But I think a specific point of entry for me, and I know for a lot of others as well, is the role of music in the story. Music has always played a huge role in my memories, and Eleanor and Park’s love story unfolding to mix tapes was so realistic to me. Even now certain songs that I associate with a time period in my life, or a specific memory, give me visceral reactions (again, good and bad). I know that Rainbow Rowell feels the same way, as she makes actual mix tapes (or Spotify playlists) for each book that she writes, and she associates specific songs with each character and scene in her stories. It is so obvious from her writing that the music is selected carefully and lovingly, and for me that was easily one of the highlights of Eleanor & Park.

  3. Rachel Lacks says:

    I absolutely loved this book. I felt that not only was it beautifully crafted through the alternating of Park’s and Eleanor’s perspectives, but I also thought there was great character development, an extremely compelling tale, and so many different intriguing story lines to focus on that I was never left bored. Rowell touched upon so many issues that come along with adolescence: young love, parental relationships and family dynamics, bullying, body image issues, race and identity development, and friendship. I was very impressed with Rowell’s ability to lace all of these themes into the book so naturally and masterfully; it did not feel as though she was trying to overload the novel with too many stories, but at the same time, each theme had an appropriate place within the context of the novel as a whole and was an important contribution to the big picture.
    I really enjoyed the development of Eleanor and Park’s relationship. At first, I was a bit skeptical to believe it as love, because it felt almost more convenient for Eleanor: she came from a terribly unstable and unsupportive home environment, and needed to feel loved and appreciated. She was bullied ruthlessly at school and did not seem to truly fit in anywhere she went. It seemed as though she might have loved the first thing that would love her back and make her feel safe in a life that left her constantly alone and unsure. Park needed validation as well: he seemed blind to how attractive girls found him, and was instead struggling with his biracial white-Asian identity, and how he was perceived. Thought he had a happier home life, he did not seem particularly open with his parents, and was not free to be himself without repercussions. I did, however, grow to believe the love in the relationship, but I am not sure if that is because I felt like I was supposed to, or because the love became believable to me. I also was cognizant of the characters’ young ages, and considered how they were defining love with nothing else to compare these new feelings to. I did love the story overall, and would be curious to hear how others saw the relationship; perhaps the relationship was more of a necessity than a love.

  4. Catherine Healy says:

    Like The Miseducation of Cameron Post (one of my very favorite YA novels, also set in the Great Plains in the late 1980s/early 1990s), Eleanor & Park played with my idea of “historical fiction.” The story is set within my lifetime, but the world has changed so much in the last three decades that I felt I was reading about an era far removed from my own. For me, though, the intense specificity of the setting in Eleanor & Park WAS the entry point. From Joy Division to stonewashed miniskirts, Rainbow Rowell creates such a vivid and detailed world that I had no trouble imagining myself in Omaha in 1986. I agree with Kara — many of the scenes from this story transported me to memories, both good and bad, of my own life in high school!

    I thought Rowell’s portrayal of Eleanor’s desperate, miserable family was especially sensitive and nuanced, particularly in the minor details (“All five of them had learned to cry without making any noise”). My only complaint about this book was the use of ellipses everywhere. It felt a bit sloppy (and annoyingly reminiscent of Judy Blume’s Forever) to me, and I thought the writing would have been much stronger without them.

    It is easy for me to understand why this book has resonated so powerfully with readers of all ages. The emotions Rowell captures in this novel — frustration with family members, worry about fitting in, the thrill of falling in love for the first time — are universal, but the characters are so real that the simple girl-meets-boy storyline feels brand-new. I saw myself on every page of Eleanor & Park, and yet every plot twist surprised me.

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