I have conflicting feelings about Eleanor & Park. I know that various aspects of it really troubled some people, from the treatment of the characters of colour to the way it deals with Eleanor’s fraught home life. I don’t know enough about American culture and history to really comment on that, other than acknowledging that some people find it problematic, e.g. in the exoticisation of Park’s looks and the stereotyping with his mother. I think everything Rowell does here is an honest attempt, though; I think there’s a conscious effort to bring in more diverse characters, it’s just that it brings in a lot of new problems with it.
Still, despite that, I actually really liked the book. I tend to enjoy Rainbow Rowell’s style anyway, and in this book I enjoyed the way she portrayed a teenage relationship. It’s dramatic life and death stuff, and while I don’t think I ever behaved that way, people I know did. Just discovering hormones and making a big mess of themselves over it and each other. It’s complicated in this case by Eleanor’s relationship with her step-dad, and Park’s discomfort about whether he’s the kind of son his father would want. I think parental situations had a fair amount to do with the rather desperate coupling up I saw sometimes: if you’ve got someone to think about while whatever’s going on at home kicks off, then it’s a bit more bearable. Or you’re less alone. Etc.
I think someone else said that to write for teenagers, you have to remember what it’s like to be a teenager, and I think Rainbow Rowell evokes that pretty well here.
When it comes to dealing with the difficult themes around Eleanor’s family, again, I think it’s an honest attempt. She evokes the feeling of threat well when she’s in Eleanor’s POV; it comes through a lot less when she’s writing from Park’s point of view, though. In a way, that’s realistic: we never know exactly what’s going on behind someone else’s eyes. But in this case… Park was so shocked when Eleanor spilled everything, and I’m just thinking, hey, there were plenty of warning signs, in neon.
All in all, though, I found Eleanor & Park a really easy read, and I liked Rainbow Rowell’s attitude to it that she mentioned at the signing I went to — she couldn’t write some happy ever after for Eleanor and Park, because they’re still kids. It’s not the end of their story, it’s the beginning. I really like that she didn’t go for the easy end where everything’s alright: she gave us hope, sure, but no more than that.