We’ve been a bit less than enthusiastic about the year in YA literature, especially about the big name titles, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself disagreeing with your “underwhelmed” reaction to Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. By no means did I find this novel to be a perfect book, but, perhaps because you had lowered my expectations, I found it charming, thoroughly engrossing, and very emotionally satisfying.
You had a few criticisms, and I’ll see if I can answer those. First you said that you weren’t convinced by the 80’s setting. I’d love to hear you elaborate on this further, because I found it very well-wrought. Though I’m about a decade younger than these characters, I’m close enough in age to remember very well the obsessions with mixtapes, MTV, specific fashions, and more, and it all seemed pitch-perfect to me. I’m not sure exactly why the novel had to be set in the 80’s, but given that it was, I felt Rowell evoked that decade effortlessly.
As for your more involved critique, regarding the narration, first off, I should say that I listened to this as an audio book, so I can’t fully address your concern that you “didn’t think the voices were clearly different enough.” In the audio, they were narrated by separate narrators, so that was no problem. I can rebut your claim that: “It was kind of an odd structure, to have the two different points of view, but to have them both told in third-person narration.” I didn’t find that to be the case at all. For one thing, even though they were third person narrators, the sections were clearly limited to the perspective of the character named at the start of the section. And there was copious use of the particular character’s inner thoughts within the narration. So I didn’t feel that the third person was a limitation at all. As for the “awkwardness” of the back-and-forth between the narrators, this may just be a taste issue, but I quite liked the parts when Rowell would quickly ping-pong between Park and Eleanor to show what each were thinking about a given issue.
And in general, setting aside formal issues of narration or awkward transitions, I felt that the dual narration was crucial to the entire purpose of the novel, which was to create a dialectic between the viewpoints of a relatively privileged young man and a very much underprivileged young woman: showing how each could fundamentally misunderstand the cultural background of the other, even as they were in many ways very similar to each other. I found this dialectic subtly done and very impressive. The novel would have been infinitely less rich had the reader only had access to one or the other viewpoint.
Mostly, though, I felt that the love story was remarkably well done: the tentativeness of each character, their doubts about both themselves and each other (especially Park’s concerns about whether dating Eleanor would make him less cool), and their very slow-motion progress all felt hard-won. And I practically wanted to stand up and cheer when I realized that Rowell wasn’t going to fall into any of the usual teen-romance cliched endings: crazy misunderstandings, one partner turns out to be a complete jerk, traumatic event like a pregnancy scare, etc. etc.
As I said, I didn’t find the book to be perfect. Despite the nice focus on class issues, it all seems just a bit light-weight. I was quite disappointed that basically everything from school (especially the poem the kids were supposed to memorize) was sort of dropped about half-way through. And most of the side characters were pretty lightly sketched. So I wouldn’t nominate this for a Printz. But I still found it to be a very satisfying read that I’d heartily recommend to a huge range of teens.