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A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Teen readers may learn about adolescent pop culture (particularly alternative music and comic books) of the early-to-mid 1980s. The author firmly places the story in 1986 by mentioning the music, celebrities, apparel, and books that mean a lot to the two central characters.
Eleanor and Park's friendship and romance show that you can't judge someone by your first impression of them. If that had been the case, Eleanor would forever have thought of Park as the "stupid Asian kid" who cursed at her, and he would've considered her the off-putting weird girl. The story stresses the importance of standing up for those you love, having a relationship based on honesty and respect, staying true to yourself, and trusting parents who love you to understand. But Park's self-doubt and Eleanor's fetishization of him make their relationship unhealthy at times. The book romanticizes this toxic dynamic, with neither character working to overcome past traumas.
Positive Role Models
Park and Eleanor love each other and want to help each other in any way possible. Park, in particular, wants to make Eleanor happy, since she lives in such an unhappy home. He demonstrates courage by standing up for Eleanor, who's constantly bullied. She feels as though there isn't anything she can give back to Park in return, but she does give him the gift of the Beatles and her constant love. Still, there's a power imbalance in their relationship: Park caters to Eleanor's emotional needs and tries to "save her" from her abusive home by silencing his own voice. But Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan are positive examples of happily married, loving parents; they're the foils for Eleanor's abused mother and checked-out father, as well as her abusive stepfather.
Eleanor endures fat-shaming at school, called names like the "Big Red." While she retains a unique sense of style and is proud of her academic success, she's insecure about her body and traumatized by her abusive home life and takes her frustrations out on Park. Park is biracial White and Korean, depicted as brave, empathetic, and a supportive friend and romantic partner. But he shows insecurity and internalized racism toward his Korean heritage. He also falls into several Asian stereotypes: He's short, slim, reserved, wears eyeliner to enhance his "Asian look," and assumes a support role to meet a White character's needs. His Korean mother cooks and cleans and constantly plays the peacemaker between Park and his disapproving father. She's also described as "a dainty China doll" that Park's father brought back from Korea during his military service. Two minor Black characters named Beebi and DeNice are negatively portrayed as mean and gossipy.
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Violence & Scariness
Park starts a fight with a classmate who was making fun of Eleanor. Both Park and the classmate end up with bloody, bruised faces. Eleanor's stepfather is cruel and violent: He smashes things and physically abuses Eleanor's mom, who sports bruises and hickies. He acts threateningly toward Eleanor, who hates him and is frightened of him. He also anonymously writes abusive messages on Eleanor's school notebooks, calling her a "bitch in heat."
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Eleanor and Park keep their relationship chaste, holding hands and caressing each other's faces and arms, for a long while before they eventually kiss. After a few kisses, their physical relationship leads to three passionate make-out sessions, but they stop just shy of sex. Eleanor mentions that nothing with Park is "dirty, because she knows he loves her." But their codependency is portrayed as romantic, rather than unhealthy. Adults also kiss, parents warn their school-age sons not to get anyone pregnant, and a dad has a collection of Playboy magazines.
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High schoolers swear on a regular basis, as does Park's father. Language includes "f--k," "motherf----r," "s--t," "bitch," "d--k," etc. Somebody writes abusive comments on a girl's notebooks, calling her "a bitch in heat." Classmates use racist and fatphobic taunts such as "raghead" and "Big Red."
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Products & Purchases
Brands are mentioned within the context of the 1980s setting, like Converse, Vans, Doc Martens. Popular culture, especially New Wave music (The Cure, The Smiths, U2, Dead Kennedys, XTC, Joy Division), comic books (Watchmen, X-Men, Batman: The Dark Knight), literature (Maya Angelou, Judy Blume), and TV (Tom Selleck, Magnum P.I.) are discussed in nearly every conversation between Eleanor and Park.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
An adult frequently hangs out at a neighborhood dive bar, drinks until drunk, and goes home angry and ready to lash out at whoever's in his way.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Eleanor & Park is Rainbow Rowell's coming-of-age romance about two high-school misfits in the 1980s who meet and fall in love on the school bus. There's strong language such as "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," and "d--k," and mature themes about poverty, domestic and sexual abuse, and emotional/financial instability. The central characters explore the challenges of being "different" (in Park's case, because he's biracial Korean and White, in Eleanor's because she's not thin and comes from a poor family) but also the joy of falling in love for the first time. Popular culture from the 1980s is regularly discussed, and the couple shares everything from holding hands to nearly having sex. But readers should note that the book uses racist Asian stereotypes, fatphobic language, and negatively portrays Black characters as mean and gossipy.
Is It Any Good?
Author Rainbow Rowell touchingly explores the overwhelming nature of first love -- the kind of love that feels as if it can last a lifetime, that can help heal wounds and open doors. In Eleanor & Park, two high school misfits see the best and the beautiful in each other. Their passionate conversations and debates, about everything from the role of women in comic books (Eleanor says they're too passive, Park disagrees), to the opening measures of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" or the short-sightedness of Romeo and Juliet, lays the foundation for a believable and poignant love story.
It's unfortunate, then, that Rowell romanticizes the codependent aspects of their relationship, which edge into toxic one-sidedness whenever Eleanor takes out her traumas and insecurities on Park. This imbalance is also evident in that Rowell portrays Eleanor far better than she does Park, who's often reduced to fetishization and stereotypes. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that, as a White author, Rowell can't do Park's Korean heritage justice.
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