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Book Review: Eleanor & Park

So to go along with my twelve-year-old boy taste in movies and my irrational love of sitcoms, my favorite genre of novel is…YA (you all saw this coming, right? Had me pegged for a raging Harry Potter fan? Guilty.) Adult fiction somehow never managed to hold quite the same appeal for me, coming after all the great YA I loved in high school. The seventh Harry Potter book came out the summer before I went to college, my childhood ended, and fiction just hasn’t been the same sense.

Okay that’s darker than I really meant the sentiment to be. But the problem is, adult fiction might not capture the imagination in the same way YA once did, but you also do naturally outgrow YA. (Or at least, a lot of YA. Harry Potter will be awesome forever and Holes still really holds up).

I read Eleanor & Park, a YA novel by Rainbow Rowell, at the recommendation of another AMWF friend when I began Fiction Diversity (sensing a theme to this blog…did I mention I’m looking for guest reviewers?) Like a lot of today’s YA, Eleanor & Park deals with explicitly darker themes than the stuff I read as a kid, which actually appeals to my adult sense of realism. Rowell’s blunt treatment of these themes (which include abuse) definitely adds an adult feel to the story, which is set in Omaha in 1986. Otherwise, the novel is a fairly typical you-never-forget-your-first teenage love story, albeit written unusually well.

Eleanor is the abused misfit who never holds out much hope for fitting in. At her John Hughes-esque high school, she’s mocked for her hand-me-down clothes and her weight. Park is the half Korean American comic book enthusiast who, if never quite a misfit, is keenly aware that he remains in the social graces of his peers only via the lingering attentions of the most popular girl in school.

The novel’s primary flaw may be that it can’t seem to decide how to deal with its own diversity. Other reviewers have pointed to the offensive language in the novel. To some extent, I think that a portion of these elements can be explained by the fact that the novel is told from the perspective of sixteen-year-old kids living in 1980’s Nebraska – a lot of the racial elements are, I believe, an intentional description of the way these kids think and speak.

However, the real problems occur where race is most explicit: in Park’s Korean mother and in Park himself. The only racist remark attributed to an adult in the novel comes from Park’s mother – who expresses her displeasure, in broken English, with Park and Eleanor’s friendship, insisting that there will be no “weird white girl” in her home. Given the attitudes and language displayed by the teenagers, the blase attitude of the adults, save the one minority, reads as unlikely.

In another scene, Park complains to Eleanor that Asian guys are never considered “hot”, which comes across as a strange sentiment from someone who has also been cashing in on the social capital associated with having dated the hottest girl in school, who still throws herself at him every once in while. Park attributes a lot of negatives to his race – his unattractiveness, his sense of not fitting in, his lack of masculinity – that are likely attributable to other sources (such as the strict gender roles enforced by his Korean war vet father). Park’s Korean identity is continuously pushed aside, acknowledged only for its negative impacts. The only positive element acknowledged is Eleanor’s description of Park’s skin as “sunlight through honey” (which, as Angry Girl Comics brilliantly points out, sounds a lot like fetishized shiny vampires). Park is never allowed to reconcile with his identity.

I guess life is like that sometimes. Emotions are buried, teenagers are angst-y, and people make no sense. Sometimes we never do get to reconcile.

But the purity of teenage logic and our remembrance of what it was like to feel those powerful emotions for the first time is the continued draw of YA, even for adults who are no longer young.

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