It isn’t often I get to review a book that really captures my heart. Check out my latest for the Asian Review of Books:
In a stunning YA debut, author Rainbow Rowell succeeds in channeling the best that 1980s filmmaker John Hughes had to offer: that timeless quality of teenage rebellion in the iconic “Breakfast Club” combined with the occasionally sappy yet largely gratifying effusiveness of “Sixteen Candles.” It’s true: Eleanor & Park does romance almost impeccably. And as Printz Award-winning author John Green noted in his New York Times review,
Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.
This is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Eleanor & Park, a book I could hardly put down, even on a Friday night.
At first glance, the novel—set in 1980s Omaha, Nebraska—might seem to consist of the same themes that so many contemporaries in the genre offer, willy-nilly and by the shelf: teenage misfits, family troubles, the never-ending struggle to fit in, and that crushing, intense first love that consumes us all at one point in our lives.
Eleanor is an overweight, redheaded bookworm who sports an eccentric, mismatched wardrobe. Park listens to the indie-alt band The Smiths and reads Alan Moore comics on the bus. Their alternative tastes for music and literature detach them from the more conventional cliques at school. At home, Eleanor shares a room with four younger siblings and avoids her maliciously abusive stepfather, while Park resists his dad’s stringent, outdated ideals of masculinity. Often, the pair’s only escape from the daily mundane of school or the stifling oppression of home life is each other.
Although in theme, Eleanor & Park may share some similarities with the Hughes oeuvre, Rowell’s treatment of Asian-American characters manifests far more cultural competence than one could ever credit to the late director. She gives us Park, a decidedly typical teenager, rather than the cringe-worthy Long Duk Dong of “Sixteen Candles,” a character that reaffirmed nearly every offensive stereotype about Asian-Americans almost three decades after Mickey Rooney’s infamous Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Growing up in the Flats—a poor white neighborhood in Omaha—Park is half-white, half-Korean, a fact that goes mostly unremarked upon by his high school peers. Yet his race isn’t glaringly absent from the story, either. In fact, Rowell does a remarkable job of acknowledging Park’s Asianness but does not allow it to solely define him or his experience.
Like Park, I grew up in a predominantly white American city as a half-white, half-Korean kid. Yet not once did I ever encounter a character like him among the books of my youth. When I occasionally came across Asian-American characters, they most likely were recent immigrants to the States and were grappling with the difficult transition to life in a new country—compelling stories, no doubt, but vastly different from my own. So even as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed diving into the perspective of a character to whom I could truly relate, even if his experience doesn’t mirror mine in every way.
In a blog post, Rowell recounts how many of her fans, mostly “non-white readers,” have asked about Park’s heritage (Rowell, by the way, is white). Though at first, her answer was candidly, “Because Park is Korean,” she goes on to offer a few more insights:
Why is Park Korean?
Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.)
Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them.
Because I don’t live in a world where everyone looks and thinks exactly like I do. And I don’t want to write about a world like that. Even though maybe it would be easier…
However, it doesn’t matter that none of the responsibility Rowell may feel to pen diversity into her plots becomes apparent in Eleanor & Park—the story simply is, and as readers, we get lost in it, much like Eleanor and Park get lost in each other. Eleanor & Park does so many things right that it’s difficult to pinpoint any blunders. Call me blinded—captivated, perhaps, by the spell of a book—but I suspect there may not be any.