Skip to content

Eleanor And Park Theme Essay

the cover of Eleanor & Park

AuthorRainbow Rowell
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
GenreRomance
PublisherSt. Martin's Press

Publication date

February 2013
Media typePrint (Hardback), Audiobook
Pages329
ISBN1250012570

Eleanor & Park is the first young adult novel written by Rainbow Rowell, published in 2013. The story follows dual narratives by Eleanor and Park, two misfits living in Omaha, Nebraska from 1986 to 1987. Eleanor, a full-figured, 16-year-old girl with curly red hair, and Park, a half-Korean, 16-year-old boy, meet on a school bus on Eleanor's first day at the school and gradually connect through comic books and mix tapes of '80s music, sparking a love story.

Plot[edit]

Eleanor Douglas is beginning 10th grade. She is the oldest in a family of two girls and three boys. All the children live with their mother and stepfather, Richie, in a tiny two-bedroom house. The children share one bedroom. There is one bathroom, and Richie has removed the door and will not allow a curtain for privacy. Richie is physically and emotionally abusive to the mother and often drunk. The children live in terror of him. Eleanor does not own a toothbrush or properly fitting clothes. She patches her clothes in bright colors, wears ribbons in her hair, and creates strange clothing combinations, over which her fellow students bully her. Eleanor has just returned after sleeping on the couch of a family friend since Richie threw her out a year earlier.

Park Sheridan has lived in Omaha his whole life. While his family is not affluent, and his parents come from very different backgrounds, his home is filled with love. While his father is tall and "masculine", Park takes after his mother in appearance and is shorter than his younger brother. Park believes he is a disappointment and is unenthusiastic about taekwondo, which his father values. Park is instead interested in alternative music and comics. He feels insecure about his size and Asian heritage, despite getting along with the popular kids at school.

On Eleanor's first day at her new school, the students find her weird. They rearrange their seats on the school bus to get her yelled at by the driver. When Eleanor is about to cry, Park rudely offers her a seat. They have a few classes together, during which Park notices Eleanor is one of the smartest students in class. They begin to connect.

Eleanor is bullied at school. Girls cover her gym locker with sanitary pads, and someone writes crude remarks in her school books. At home, Richie frequently screams at Eleanor's mother while drunk. One night, Eleanor hears gunshots and calls 911, but the police believe Richie's lies over her report. Eleanor tries to conceal her living situation from Park, but gets frustrated when he takes some things for granted, like a telephone, batteries, or safety. She tries to reject Park's gifts, believing herself unworthy. The two spend more time together in secret, since Richie won't allow Eleanor to have a boyfriend, and her mother and siblings' loyalties have shifted to Richie. Park professes his love for Eleanor, making her uncomfortable. Her first meeting with his parents does not go well.

Park gets into a fight with Steve, who was bullying Eleanor, and lands a taekwondo kick to Steve's mouth. Park's nose is broken in return. His mother grounds him "forever", thinking Eleanor is leading Park into trouble. Park's father, on the other hand, is proud of Park and understands that Richie is an abusive alcoholic. After seeing Eleanor's family, Park's mother invites Eleanor to stay at their house. Eleanor accepts and lies to her family about it. Eleanor's uncle offers to take Eleanor to Minnesota for the summer so she can attend a program for gifted teens. Richie says no.

One night, Park's mom tells the kids to go on a date. Eleanor returns home to a fight between Richie and her mother. She finds her personal possessions destroyed. She matches a hateful message written by Richie to the handwriting of the perverted notes in her school books. Eleanor flees and ends up in Steve's garage with him and Tina, who turn out to not be as bad as she had thought. She goes to Park's house and tries to formulate a way to get to St. Paul, Minnesota. Park insists upon driving her. His father sees him sneaking out of the house, but, surprisingly, gives Park money and tells him to take the truck. Park leaves Eleanor at her uncle's house. Eleanor's aunt and uncle welcome her and plan to remove her siblings as well.

Park sends Eleanor letters and gifts, but she does not respond. Park tries to forget her, but can't. Soon, Eleanor's siblings and mother disappear from Richie's house, leaving Richie alone once again. Park passes by Eleanor's former house frequently, longing for her. Park encounters Richie one day as he is coming back from one of his drinking binges. Park fantasizes about killing Richie, because he "can" and "should," but ends up only kicking the ground in front of Richie's face, who had fallen in the snow. Six months later, Park receives a postcard from Eleanor with three words on it.

Themes[edit]

Escape[edit]

Eleanor desperately seeks for a way to get out of her everyday house and Richie, even though she knows that would mean leaving Park behind. She gets what she wants when Park offers to drive her to Minnesota, away from Richie and her house but what he gets in return is that Eleanor's mother and siblings also go to where she is, leaving Park with just memories the two have made together.

Domestic abuse[edit]

A key issue revolves around Eleanor and her stepfather, Richie. There are countless times when Eleanor notices bruising on her mother's face. Richie abuses Eleanor’s mother both physically – though Rowell never shows us Richie hitting Eleanor’s mother, Sabrina – and emotionally. Richie yells at and controls Sabrina throughout most of the novel, and Eleanor is so used to it that she can “sleep through the screaming.” Sabrina treads lightly around Richie, so as not to spike his anger, making sure everything is right so Richie won’t hurt her or the kids.

Child abuse[edit]

Richie physically abuses the kids, hitting them when they do something wrong, as well as verbally abusing them, calling them insults. The kids go without new clothes or shoes, wearing the few items Eleanor’s mother can get at Goodwill. The children don’t have toothbrushes or toothpaste, nor shampoo or conditioner to wash their hair; they only have access to dish washing soap. They don’t have much to eat, either. All five children sleep in a small bedroom with a bunk bed, the boys on the floor, Eleanor on the top bunk and Eleanor's younger sister on the bottom.

Bullying[edit]

Eleanor deals with bullying at school and at home. At school, her classmate Tina and other students bully her about her size, her hair, and her clothes. Eleanor's father makes comments about her weight, as well as Richie, whose comments are much more vulgar.

Body image[edit]

Eleanor is constantly bullied about her size. She wears large clothing because her cast-off Goodwill clothing is seldom in her size. In one brief moment with her father, Eleanor says he used to drop "hints about her weight." Richie hurls insults at Eleanor about her appearance. Eleanor does not hate being fat, but dislikes how much of an outcast she becomes because she looks different than anyone else. Park loves everything about Eleanor, body type included.

Tall height is described in a positive manner while short height is described negatively in characters' thoughts.

Reception and honors[edit]

The critical reception for the book has been mostly positive. Kirkus Reviews said: "Funny, hopeful, foulmouthed, sexy and tear-jerking, this winning romance will captivate teen and adult readers alike."[1] Author John Green said Eleanor & Park "reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book."[2]

The American Library Association gave the book a 2014 Michael L. Printz Award Honor book for excellence in young adult literature.[3] Calling Eleanor & Park "an honest, heart-wrenching portrayal of imperfect but unforgettable love," The Boston Globe and The Horn Book Magazine presented Rowell the 2013 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction.[4][5]The New York Times Book Review named it one of seven Notable Children's Books of 2013.[6]NPR said Eleanor & Park "captures the pure, visceral thrill of a high school swoon, but it never forgets that those feelings are real and important" in naming the book to its list of the Best Books of 2013.[7] The Association for Library Service to Children, the Young Adult Library Services Association and Booklist recognized the audiobook version of Eleanor & Park with a 2014 Odyssey Honor.[8]

Additional honors for Eleanor & Park:

  • Indies Choice Young Adult Book of the Year by the American Booksellers Association[9]
  • Amazon's Teen Book of the Year and Top Ten Book of the Year[10][11]
  • Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Book of the Year[12]
  • Young Adult Library Services Association Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults[13]
  • Audible's Best Teen Audiobook of the Year[14]

Controversy[edit]

The Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest school district in Minnesota, revised its policies following a challenge of the book at Anoka High School.[15] The parents of an Anoka High student, partnering with a citizen's group within the district, had challenged the book’s place in school libraries, calling it “vile profanity" because of its crude language. They cited 227 instances of coarse language and sexuality and demanded it be pulled from library shelves.[16] The district and the Anoka County Library withdrew an invitation to the author to speak about the book.[16] When the Anoka High principal convened a committee of parents, staff and a student to review the book, the committee determined that it was powerful, realistic and appropriate for high schoolers.[16] During this controversy, the book received support from the National Coalition Against Censorship, which noted irony in the school district canceling an appearance by the author that was scheduled to occur during Banned Books Week.[17]

Film[edit]

In 2014, it was announced that DreamWorks had purchased the rights to make an Eleanor & Park film adaptation, for which Rowell was asked to write the screenplay.[18] In May 2016, however, Rowell confirmed via Twitter that the film was no longer in development, and the rights were back with her.

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • "Eleanor & Park." Publishers Weekly 259.50 (2012): 62-63. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.
  • "Eleanor & Park." Publishers Weekly 260.17 (2013): 129. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 31 Aug. 2013
  • Jones, Courtney. "Eleanor & Park." Booklist 109.9/10 (2013): 98. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.
  • Ritter, Cynthia K. "Eleanor & Park." Horn Book Magazine 89.3 (2013): 93-94. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.
  • Paladino, Julie. "Eleanor And Park." School Library Journal 59.6 (2013): 56. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.
  1. ^"Eleanor & Park." Kirkus Reviews 80.24 (2012): 149. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.
  2. ^Green, John (March 8, 2013). "Two Against the World: 'Eleanor & Park,' by Rainbow Rowell". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 September 2013. 
  3. ^ALA News (January 27, 2014). "American Library Association announces 2014 youth media award winners by ALA News". ALA News. Retrieved 27 January 2014. 
  4. ^Horn Book (May 31, 2013). "2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature". 
  5. ^Ritter, Cynthia K. (June 3, 2013). "Fiction Reviews of 2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Winner and Honor Books". The Horn Book. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  6. ^New York Times Book Review (November 27, 2013). "Notable Children's Books of 2013". New York Times Book Review. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  7. ^"Our Guide to 2013's Great Reads". NPR. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  8. ^Luby, Kristen (January 27, 2014). "And the Odyssey Award goes to". Listening Library. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  9. ^"ABA Announces 2014 Indies Choice and E.B. White Read-Aloud Award Winners". April 15, 2014. 
  10. ^"Best Books of the Year 2013: Teen & Young Adult". Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  11. ^"2013 Best Books of the Year: The Top 100 in Print". Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  12. ^Goodreads. "Results for Best Young Adult Fiction". Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  13. ^"2014 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults". Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  14. ^"Best of 2013: Teens". Audible. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  15. ^SCHOOL BOARD POLICIES - 600 EDUCATION PROGRAMS Anoka Hennepin School District. 603.1 Curriculum Development and Materials Selection and 606.2 Library Media Materials Selection revised March 26, 2014. "In selecting media materials for purchase, the library media specialist will evaluate the existing collection and consult reputable, unbiased, professionally prepared selection aids and specialists from all applicable departments and/or all grade levels."
  16. ^ abcPrather, Shannon - After book challenge at Anoka High, district revises policies. Star Tribune, March 26, 2014.
  17. ^"Talks Cancelled for YA Authors Meg Medina and Rainbow Rowell". National Coalition Against Censorship. September 13, 2013. 
  18. ^Elavksy, Cindy (27 April 2014). "Celebrity Extra". King Features. Retrieved 10 July 2014. 

Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Press, February 2013
Reviewed from Final Copy

[Hey, listen. We do spoilers here, okay? Major spoilers, all the time. You’ve been warned.]

Just as I opened my laptop to write this review, it dawned on me that I first read Eleanor & Park over a year ago. Holding back tears that eventually spill into sobs is not a thing you forget easily. Especially when the thing that reduces you to a puddle of goo is, “Just three words long.”

I fell hard for this book. It felt like Rainbow Rowell had used my consciousness to write a novel I didn’t even know I had inside me; that’s how personal the experience was for me.

Before we delve into Rowell’s novel, let’s get back to the future for a moment. Since I read itas a digital galley last year, E & P has blown up. It’s a New York Times bestseller, has five starred reviews, and John Green has given the book a glowing recommendation in the New York Times Book Review. And if that isn’t impressive enough for you, Rowell’s other YA novel published this year, Fangirl, is also a critical success with five stars of its own. Most notable is that her novels appear together on SLJ‘s and the New York Times‘ best lists. (Eleanor & Park is also on the Horn Book’s Fanfare, Publishers Weekly’s Best Books, and Kirkus’ Best Teen Books.)

Where there is high praise though, backlash will follow. With E & P in particular it’s been difficult to avoid all critical commentary, but my completely non-empirical understanding is that race, historical context and accuracy have been among the issues raised. And then there are those who say that it’s just not that good.

For the record, I still love this book. That won’t go away, at least not any time soon. That doesn’t mean though that I can’t think critically about the work; time and revisiting the text—a re-read of the final copy and a listen of the audiobook—have certainly sharpened my reading and there is a lot to discuss.

Over multiple readings, Rainbow Rowell’s voice holds up incredibly well. The novel is written in third person limited from both Eleanor and Park’s perspectives in alternating sections. The authorial voice is witty and quick. Her sentences have a simple cadence, a kind of spare yet punchy musicality. What makes Rowell’s voice really special is that she speaks the language of pop culture. The text is littered with references to movies, television shows, comics, novels, bands, people, places and things. E & P may as well be I Love the ’80s: 1986 (and I mean this in a really good way). This isn’t Rowell showing off with obscure knowledge or name-dropping just for the sake of adding “local color.” Eleanor and Park bond while trading pop culture likes and dislikes. Song lyrics and comic book quotes are significant to the narrative. Movies show up as metaphor and character development:

“I love you,” he said.

She looked up at him, her eyes shiny and black, then looked away. “I know,” she said …

“You know?” he repeated. She smiled, so he kissed her. “You’re not the Han Solo in this relationship, you know.”

“I’m totally Han Solo,” she whispered. …

“Well, I’m not Princess Leia,” he said.

“Don’t get so hung up on gender roles,” Eleanor said. …

“You can be Han Solo,” he said, kissing her throat. “And I’ll be Boba Fett. I’ll cross the sky for you.”

They are different in so many ways but the thing that this couple of misfits share is pop culture. It’s how they communicate and understand each other, and it’s part of why the fall in love. So when Park says “I love you” while they are spending a blissful afternoon alone in Park’s house, it makes sense that they compare their relationship to Star Wars (and how could they not? Especially when Eleanor’s response is “I know.”

As the third person limited narrator, Rowell also uses pop culture metaphor as a kind of shorthand. After Eleanor goes to Park’s house and meets his mom, she thinks about the household perfection she observes in terms of the television families she knows, the Cleavers and the Waltons, and despairs that she will never fit in. What Rowell does really well here is demonstrate that the characters aren’t only using pop culture to communicate, it’s how they make sense of their lives.

This kind of pop culture infused speech can seem artificial. We see characters talk like this on tv, in shows like Dawson’s Creek (natch), and in movies like 500 Days of Summer and Juno, but do people really talk and think like this?

Of course they do. This is the way I talk with my friends; it’s how I hear my students talk to each other. Maybe we’re not always as quick and witty as Joey Potter, Juno, or Eleanor, but the voice in E & P rings true because it’s an idealized reflection of something authentic.

It’s important to note the distinction between Rowell’s voice as author, and her characters’ dialogue. Although both share a lot of qualities, the teens in E & P have their own cadences and vocabulary. They use profanity, they say “you know” and “like,” and they stumble. As readers, it is easy to believe in Eleanor and Park as real people because they are created with and use a consistent, authentic voice. Early in their relationship, Park tells Eleanor that she always seems mad at him, and it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from. Her sarcasm and pessimism deflect and defend her from true intimacy with Park. She finally breaks down and tells him how much she needs him, that she feels like she isn’t living when he’s not around. So much character development is coming out in the sharing between these two, and it’s all supported in the text.

“She couldn’t repay him. She couldn’t even appropriately thank him. How can you thank someone for the Cure? Or the X-Men? Sometimes it felt like she’d always be in his debt.

And then she realized that Park didn’t know about the Beatles.”

Of course, Rowell’s not just talking about the bands and comics. Park’s easy ability to share his passions with Eleanor actually feeds into her insecurity, but a little bit slips away when she realizes that she does have a passion to give to him. Sharing music they love is just the opening act to their eventual emotional and physical intimacy. The desire to give something of yourself to someone, to influence them, to change their life in the way they’ve changed yours: this is one of the most important ideas in the novel. Because yes, first love almost never lasts, but when two people affect each other the way that Eleanor and Park do, there is nothing that lasts longer.

I could go on–because the more I write about this book, the more I am convinced of its literary merit–but now that we’ve tackled voice, style, characters, and theme, something should be said about race in the novel. Although its not part of the Printz criteria, the depiction of race can make or break a novel’s accuracy.

I’m not gonna lie, the initial reason I wanted to read this novel was because of the gorgeous cover and seeing the name “Park” in the title. I’m a Korean-American adoptee, and I was thrilled to see a Korean name in the title of a book whose cover did not telegraph “Asian-ness” (i.e.: no Asian-ish font or design). The jacket copy doesn’t mention that Park is half-Korean but Rowell doesn’t ignore Park’s identity; it’s a huge part of his narrative struggle. Throughout the novel he must deal with the ignorant assumptions of his classmates and his own hangups about his appearance, which he is hyper-aware of. Making matters more complicated is that in his mind, his Asian identity is wrapped up with femininity because he looks more like his mother, while his younger brother looks like his big, Irish-American father. He isn’t sure what it means to be Korean, because his mother has done her best to assimilate and rarely talks about her heritage. Park’s individual story is handled sensitively and ties-in nicely with the other major themes at work in the novel. 

If I’m going to point out any failing with race in the novel, I have to mention DeNice and Beebi, the two black girls who befriend Eleanor after she is bullied. Park’s friend Cal and classmates Steve and Tina are similarly flat and broadly written, but with two girls of color, this seemed problematic and uncomfortable, especially when their dialogue is in a stylized dialect. On a first read, they don’t necessarily stand out, because they are inconsequential to the story we really care about; it was only on my listen of the audiobook that I became aware that the dialect might be a tad overdone. As I always say though, this is where assessing accuracy in fiction can become tricky because one reader’s “overdone” is another reader’s just “right.”

When a novel leaps into your heart and makes you weep, it can be really hard to parse through what is squee-good and what is literary-good. Writing this post has made me realize that although I thought E & P was just squee-good, I haven’t even scratched the surface of everything I’d like to discuss with this book. I still have some 2013 titles to read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if E & P earns at least a silver next month.

I’ll see you in the comments to talk about Eleanor’s horrible stepdad and her vanilla-wearing mother, Park’s parents, the pacing and timeline of the novel, Omaha and 1986, and anything else you think I left out. What’s your take on the book’s literary merit? Is it more than just the zeitgeisty book that made everyone cry this year? Tell us what you think!