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Eleanor and Park | Class #2, 2016

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Rainbow 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 universal themes of this book distinctly set in the 1980s, and what elements are unique to these two dynamic characters and their experiences?

 

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. Naomi Forman says:

    The universal themes in Eleanor and Park are numerous, though Rowell manages to depict them in ways that are deeply personal: the tensions between the world’s expectations for you and the ways you see yourself, the struggles between victims and bullies, and so on. The materialism that so defines Park’s family life – his comic books, punk music collection, and all the geeky accessories that decorate his room – place this book distinctly within a 1980s’ culture of consumerism. These accessories and all that they stand for both divide and attract Eleanor and Park: Because of her financial and family situation, Eleanor cannot have full access to all of the cultural objects that inspire and define Park, but his act of sharing them with her sparks their attraction and budding relationship.

    The novel’s uniqueness, for me, emerges most prominently in its unconventional protagonists. That Eleanor is decidedly not “nice,” as Park says, or sweet-seeming, or innocent – and yet still enormously sympathetic and lovable, is a mark of Rowell’s talent and sensitivity as a writer. I was surprised again and again by the characters, and my emotional attachment to them grew as the novel uncovered their unique layers.

  2. Sophie Blumert says:

    One of the essential universal themes that I saw being portrayed throughout the book was the importance of appearance. Eleanor and Park’s outward appearance was constantly being criticized, and each character chose to deal with it differently. Eleanor is ridiculed by classmates for the clothes that she wears, the color of her hair, and her overall size, but much of the criticism about her body and appearance comes from her own thoughts. She holds a negative body image that Park consistently attempts to change. Park’s appearance is also condemned, but more by his father than anyone else. He points out Park’s short stature and his more feminine features, and becomes especially angry when Park wears make up to school. But instead of trying to please his father, Park goes against his wishes wears it anyway, which is something that many male rock musicians did to break boundaries in the 1980’s.

    I also agree with Naomi, in that what makes these characters unique is how untraditional they are as protagonists, and how they tend to flip conventional roles. Eleanor describes herself as the Han Solo of the relationship, and she is not as forth coming with her feelings or emotions as Park. They are not a typically mainstream couple, and Rowell allows them to grow as characters and creates nuance, which drew me in more as a reader.

  3. Montserrat Cubillos says:

    The concept of beauty is another theme that the novel presents. Park’s mother and people in the neighborhood call Eleanor’s mother ‘beautiful’, but the two protagonists use the same word to describe each other. For them, the word seems to have a different meaning. They seem to find beauty in each other that other people miss. Being ‘standardly beautiful’ is not as appealing as it seems when we look at the life that Eleanor’s mother has had. There is no much value in being that kind of beautiful if all it gets you is Richie. Rather, Rowell defends this other type of beauty, the one that Eleanor sees in Park; and Park sees in Eleanor. It’s a beauty that people take time noticing, and has to do with caring. As soon as they started caring for each other, their eyes started discovering the beauty that was within them. It is interesting that, at first, Eleanor does not want to use make-up or fix her hair. Perhaps she is afraid of becoming too ‘standardly beautiful’, too much like her mother.

  4. Maiba Bodrick says:

    Interesting interpretation of Park’s appearance issues, Sophie. I actually think Park’s self perception reflects these insecurities although readers aren’t privy to this information until later in the novel. When he expresses to Eleanor that there are no hot Asian guys, this is a sentiment he’s thought about before. Although his father’s opinions of masculinity are outright, Park himself also considers himself feminine in some respects. Perhaps the most surprising reaction to Park’s appearance comes from his usually reserved mother, who questions him about the gender roles in he and Eleanor’s relationship. I found that pretty out of character for the mother and perhaps also for the 1980s!

    I am drawn to Rowell’s ability to allow characters to grapple with issues of race, family, bullying and identity without being untrue to the adolescent perspectives. There is a strong sense of being able to talk about problems without having a solution. This is an empowering idea for young readers.

  5. Hannah Flint says:

    Montserrat’s comment has me thinking about the beauty of Eleanor and Park’s relationship. The way they care for each other does, in fact, let them see both physical beauty and the beauty within, but there is also beauty in the relative brevity of their relationship. They talk about forever, but they never have the chance to find out what forever, or even 17 might look like. It isn’t accidental that their English class reads Romeo and Juliet, another pair of teen lovers who come from different worlds, and who are separated (in their case, by death) before their love has to stand the test of time.

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