Rowell’s novel is not the typical young adult contemporary romance. The back cover describes the novel as the story of “two misfits...one extraordinary love.” On some levels, this statement is true, especially when considering some of the themes the novel addresses—bullying in its various forms, conformity and nonconformity, and fears regarding self-image. However, the love felt between the novel’s two main characters is not what one would readily classify as one of those nice, fluffy romances. It’s more “extraordinary” in the sense that the novel depicts love in the extreme, i.e. having the characters cross emotional boundaries to the point where love becomes a manic obsession. For a first young adult novel, Eleanor & Park
is quite a rich tale.
This is not a comfortable story to read, especially when the narrator focuses on Eleanor. Eleanor is rather reminiscent of Natalie Wood’s character in the film Splendor in the Grass
. She has that same overwhelming awkward sense of unsureness. Eleanor is obsessively needy and clingy, ready to cry at a moment’s notice, manically ecstatic and warm one moment, while completely cold and closed off the next...all exacerbated by parental neglect and abuse. So when Eleanor does find an anchor in Park Sheridan, he becomes her one and all, her only reason for living. For Eleanor, the novel essentially questions whether she will ever be able to find a sense of balance and security in her life. As a side note, Rowell handles the abuse theme very well in this novel.
In regards to the novel’s other protagonist Park Sheridan, he as well faces his own journey of self-discovery through his relationship with Eleanor. For Park, the question arises as to whether conformity has positively or negatively affected his self-identity, which in turn will lead him to determine whether he has the courage to stand up for what he believes in. Though the questions are traditional for a coming of age novel, the choices Park will make are not necessarily the kind where he will be placed in a situation that is in opposition to an opposing group, i.e. not the traditional battle of jocks vs. misfits/geeks. They are more personal in nature...a quest for truth.
That said, though Rowell’s novel is psychologically and thematically rich, in regards to structure and detail the novel is not as strong. Rowell not only uses chapters to tell her story, but also divides the chapters further by shifting the points of view of her two main characters. This would have been fine if the story wasn’t told using the same third person narrative voice. Even though there are shifts in perspective, it is difficult for the reader to distinguish Park’s voice from Eleanor’s. As a result, both characters sound like the narrator/author, which diminishes authenticity. Also at times, Rowell becomes so focused on the physical/emotional aspects of Eleanor and Park’s relationship—teen angst et.al.—that she doesn’t follow through with other details, especially regarding the progression of time through the novel. For instance throughout the novel, Eleanor and Park share music with each other. While the reader does get to see Eleanor’s reaction to some of the artists Park introduces her to, the reader is not given Park’s take on the music she introduces to him. It is also difficult to distinguish time during their relationship. At the end of the novel, the reader knows that the events take place over the course of a year; yet when reading, as the events are taking place, time seems nonexistent. What seems to take place over a matter of days, actually takes place across weeks and months. This in turn makes the relationship feel rushed, and the strength of Eleanor’s feelings all the more extreme because of its suddenness.
All said, though Rowell penned a thematically strong work, her novel’s construction lacks dimensionality.