After my successful encounter with Attachments, I was very ready to scoop up this book, which is maybe just a touch more well-known and beloved. But then right when I was going to read it I read instead this post about diversity in children’s literature, which includes a section on Eleanor & Park and how it’s a little bit racist, and then, even worse, I clicked through one of the links. So I was like, crap, now I don’t want to read this book that I really wanted to read because racism, THANKS INTERNET.
So I stopped reading that part of the internet, gave myself a couple days to read other things, and then devoured E&P before I could think about it too hard.
And it was awesome. And less racist than the internet made it out to be (you’re shocked, I know).
The awesome, first. E&P is about two kids called, as you might guess, Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is the new girl in school, which would suck on its own, but even worse she’s the new girl with the weird fashion sense and complete apathy toward even pretending to make friends. On her first day she almost doesn’t have a seat on the bus but is saved by Park, a kid just popular enough to be allowed to be nice to an unpopular kid (and boy do I not miss that higher-level mathematics). At first they ignore each other, but then they bond over Park’s comic books and music (note: this book takes place in the ’80s) and start kissing and it is ADORABLE. But soon enough Eleanor’s family life catches up with her and her relationship with Park becomes harder and harder to maintain.
It’s really pretty standard YA romance, from what I’ve read in the genre, and it is unsurprising that John Green loved it. I found the flirty parts cute and delightful, I found the “Eleanor’s home life” parts appropriately awful, and I found the ending as incredibly unrealistic as any of Green’s novels, so it was basically exactly what I was expecting.
So, okay, onto the racism, which I will readily admit to not having all the answers for but which I think is less about racism as it is about Rowell going a little over the top with everything in this novel. Park is a half-Korean kid with a military dad who more or less brought Park’s mom home from Korea with him; Park is smaller and more Korean-looking than his younger brother and thus thinks that his dad likes his brother better; Park is hugely embarrassed by his mother, who can’t or won’t shed her Korean accent and love of things Korean. So, yeah, all that is pretty stereotypical.
But then there’s Eleanor: a poor white kid who is also overweight and ginger and has just been allowed to return to her drunk and abusive stepfather’s new house after being kicked out of the family for a year and now has to live with her siblings who have decided to make friends with the stepfather and leave Eleanor to fight against him by herself in a house that doesn’t have a door on the bathroom apparently so that the stepfather can creepily creep on whoever’s in there. Not exactly a winning portrait of white America there, either.
Most of the internet’s specific examples of racist or otherwise insensitive prose in the novel I thought could be easily explained by the context of the novel itself, and at first I was like, okay, so what? But then I thought of all the times I’ve been inordinately outraged over some love triangle in a dystopian YA novel or yet another use of Cleveland as a shorthand for misery and rivers that catch on fire (shut up Cleveland is awesome you’re a miserable river on fire) and I was like, oh, got it.
There is lots and lots to be said about diversity and racism (both intentional and casual) in literature, and I encourage you to read that post I linked above and all the posts it links to, which I did read after I finished E&P and which were illuminating. And if you have more links to interesting diversity posts, drop them in the comments and I will totally read them.
But back, briefly, to the book at hand. If you’re looking for a sweet YA romance with a heaping handful of melodrama, this is one of the many that exist and you will not be disappointed. If you’re looking for a sweet YA romance with a heaping handful of melodrama that is not full of either stereotypical characters or stereotypically not stereotypical characters… I really can’t help you there. Are there any?
Recommendation: For lovers of comics and ’80s music and adorable teen love.