Saturday, March 30, 2013

Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell)

I got the chance to read this book as an ARC from NetGalley months ago, but I decided not to read it because I realized it didn't sound as interesting as I had first thought. However, I saw a few weeks ago that the book had a ridiculously high Goodreads rating (currently 4.18), plus hype from Gayle Forman and John Green and decided this wasn't a book I should miss.

The book, told in alternating perspectives, goes like this: it's 1986. Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus. Eleanor is weird and kind of weird-looking. Park is half-Korean but socially inoffensive. They fall in love ("star-crossed love" is how just about every blurb/review I see insists on referring to their romance). Okay, I thought. I'm down for a good love story.

And to some extent, I got one. Yes, so Park and Eleanor are kind of misfits that fall in love and we all want that to happen since we think we're all misfits who deserve to find love. Some of the writing is a little unconvincing--Eleanor talks about how much she hates Romeo and Juliet but occasionally comes off as a monologue from the play: neither of the main characters can stop talking about how much they need to be with the other, how the moments without them are the worst moments of their lives. It's quite endearing, very sixteenish and a little too dramatic for my tastes.

Underneath the shiny veneer, Rowell's novel is kind of a mess. I'm going to invent a new term here (panic): "YA curse". Eleanor and Park falls victim to the YA curse, by which I mean that we are presented with a totally great book with interesting characters that ends up bogged down by the "obligatory" inclusion of real-life issues (in this case, home abuse and effeminacy) and teen protagonists acting a little too pretentious, worldly and wise. I suspect that John Green may be the biggest culprit here, but David Levithan's Every Day succumbed to it. It's not necessarily a kiss of death, but the rest of the book has to work really hard to cover it up. Eleanor and Park never quite gets there.

The book sort of unravels into a quirkfest and a who's who of the 1980s. The aforementioned real-life issues seem a little forced into the narrative in order to give it some driving force--without Eleanor's mean stepfather, it's hard to imagine Eleanor and Park getting off the ground, and even with it is a central narrative force, the book only awkwardly flings itself at the finish line. In fact, the ending was one of my major issues with the novel. Of course there has to be something that forces our lovers apart (which, as I mentioned, is not as strong as it could be), but what we end up with is an ending that doesn't want to commit to hope or tragedy. And that's always disappointing.

Despite my reservations with the novel, it's something that the John Green set must read. They will absolutely love it, probably for all of the reasons that I didn't. It's not a bad book (in fact, it was pretty good), but my own personal weariness with the YA curse prevents me from rating it higher.

My rating: 3/5
Eleanor and Park on Goodreads
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