Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell, isn’t a nice book. It’s not supposed to be nice. As one of the protagonists, Park, would say, “It’s supposed to be art, and art isn’t supposed to be nice. It’s supposed to make you feel something.”
The reason we feel something with this novel is due to Rowell’s characters. Eleanor is a dual-protagonist novel in which the title characters meet on a bus on their way to high school, and throughout the year fall in love. They have everything in common—a love of music, sense of humor, growing attraction—but they lead antithetical lives. Park comes from a stable home life in which his parents are equitable partners, and the family’s love is easily evident in everything from their flowerboxes to their nightly dinners. Eleanor lives with her mother and stepfather, the latter making every moment of every day difficult and even dangerous for Eleanor, her four siblings and her mom. The characters are nuanced and plausible, and even teenagers today could easily connect with these two characters, who inhabit a mid-1980s world. In the end, Eleanor escapes from her wrecked home with Park’s help, and the novel ends with ambiguity as to the outcome of their relationship.
The fact of the matter is that if read shallowly, Eleanor could come across as a hero-saves-damsel novel. However, Eleanor is a protagonist in her own right: she is half of the narration, after all, and Rowell makes good use of small details, too. In particular, Eleanor rants against Hugh Hefner, and she and Park share conversations about the X-Men’s only women having superpowers like “thinking really hard” and “wearing spotless lingerie,” which lends a layer of feminism to Eleanor’s character. Her actions, too, decry the damsel theory: she alone decides to leave her stepfather’s house; she decides to go to her uncle, hitchhiking, and doesn’t seek Park’s approval for her plan. He does end up driving her off into the sunset, so to speak, but Eleanor accepts this as part of her own plan of escape. Park doesn’t formulate the entire escape plan and then enact it with Eleanor as a passive participant. It’s Rowell’s writing that moves the plot development from traditional hero story to something deeper and more significant.
Rowell writes with the certainty of an artist in the middle of her career. Eleanor is not self-conscious, and Rowell is clearly confident enough to lead the reader to a conclusion instead of pushing the reader over the brink, but I expect that Rowell is not yet at the apex of her career. However, for a second novel, Eleanor is done well. Some of her lines are truly beautiful, even peaceful, and would be even without the context of the greater novel. Little moments build deliberately until they crest, allowing the reader a growing sense of anxiety, understanding and falling in love along with the characters. In this way, we do not experience surprise at the plot developments, but we are not able to predict these events or grow bored, either.
The story structure is also sophisticated for the average teenage reader. Rowell opens with the end of the story, moves between protagonists for each chapter, and ends the story with a cryptic, unexplained note. These techniques, the latter in particular, might be difficult for an immature reading audience to appreciate. Eleanor actually falls right in the middle of its young adult genre: the themes are too adult for anyone younger than, say, 13—as the characters themselves point out, they don’t do anything in the back of the car that you couldn’t show in the movies, although at one point they are indeed in the back of a car—but the overall messages of hope and personal strength are geared toward those readers who are in the middle of an adolescent crisis themselves, unlike the more universally aimed YA novels, like John Green’s works, or J.K. Rowling’s. One particular point of contention for Eleanor is that she has an ample figure. Rowell uses her size as a means of furthering her message of hope and love. Eleanor obviously does not choose the weight she has (most nights her family doesn’t have a substantial enough amount of food for everyone to avoid feeling hungry) but she does not seek to lose weight, either. In this way, Rowell subtly fights the fat-shaming arguments that connect weight to personal choice and even morality. Park is also attracted to Eleanor because of her body, not in spite of it, encouraging young women to feel confident and worthwhile at any size, which is a brave message that runs contrary to the slew of fat-shaming that Eleanor—and teenagers today—experience.
The message of Eleanor and Park is clear: your dire teenage situation will get better. It might not be easy, and you might get hurt, but take care of yourself and, when you can, take care of others, too. You’ll make it out. Adults do not need to hear this. Adults who might read this presumably already escaped their adolescence and any harrowing situations experienced therein. To keep the message on point, Rowell doesn’t allow us to see Eleanor get to her adult years, or even to college, because teenagers with rough home lives and no college fund don’t get to skip merrily along to the golden dorm years. Sometimes, besieged teens have to leave behind an abused mother and sad siblings. Sometimes they have to live in a relative’s house where they’re not entirely welcome, and sometimes the adults in whom they put their trust don’t become the Walton-esque caregivers the teen has never had. Eleanor is the everywoman, the patron saint of the American teenager. We see her struggle in order to pull through our own struggles, to know we are not alone, and to have hope.
This is a YA novel written specifically for young adults, using its adult themes as a way to reach out to a specific audience. Eleanor and Park have concerns that adults could classify as either trivial or significant, but to the protagonists, they are all significant—some are just more fleeting. Eleanor in particular worries that Park is a superhero, and she cannot live up to the awesomeness that being the partner of a superhero demands. But Eleanor shows us that we never see ourselves as we are. Neither Eleanor nor Park is a superhero at all. They’re simply ordinary teenagers who change their lives, in subtle and major ways. And that alone can be a heroic act when you’re sixteen.