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“Is This Seat Taken?” Thoughts on Eleanor & Park

Eleanor and Park
(Via Goodreads)

Eleanor & Park (2013)

By Rainbow Rowell

As cliche as it sounds, I’m going to fangirl right now and say, “I REALLY, REALLY LOVE THIS BOOK.” There are so many reasons why this book is on my favorite list on Goodreads. It opened the door towards making Rainbow Rowell one of my favorite authors; in which I will buy all her future books throughout my life. (And, I’m dead serious about it.)

If you haven’t read Eleanor & Park, you definitely should. The novel focuses on the trials of first love and also the adolescent issues young- adults encounter. It is a story set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986. On her first day in a new school, transfer student, Eleanor Douglas is forced to ride the bus. She decides to sit next to this boy, Park Sheridan, because he seems to mind his own business. Eventually, it became a usual thing, and the two start to interact with one another by sharing music and comic books. Park and Eleanor fall in love and start dating. 

While reading this novel, I recalled my high school experiences. I was a pretty average student in high school; the characters, Eleanor and Park reminded me of myself. They made the term, “socially awkward” cool. One of the scenes that brought back memories was when Eleanor had to pick a seat on the bus. Rowell describes the logistics of seat-picking on the bus. You never want to sit in the back of the bus because that is where all the popular, cool kids sit, and if you sit there, it is like an invitation to get bullied. (I know this, because it happened to me in middle school.) Rowell also mentions how if a buddy system is already in works—people have usual seating spots and seating partners—and you ruin it by sitting in someone else’s seat, you are screwing up the whole bus seating system. Lastly, Rowell talks about the people, who avoid eye contact with you and stare out the window. Those people are trying to avoid the whole awkward situation of you asking, “May I sit next to you?” While reading, Eleanor experiences these moments on the bus; I couldn’t help but cringe and feel embarrass for her. (At this point in my life, I still hate bus-seating situations.)

Rowell uses two different perspectives to tell the story: Park and Eleanor. By using two different viewpoints, the reader could see the development of their relationship. I found it fun to read about how awkward they interact with each other. Both characters provide humorous perspectives on the world and people surrounding them.  In addition, I like how both characters are versatile in regards that they represent different perspectives on issues. What I mean by this is, take Eleanor for example, she represents an adolescent living in a broken household as well as a young girl who is self-conscious about her body.

Throughout the novel, the main characters struggle with identity, which is something most teens could relate to. Like I mentioned before, Eleanor struggles with body image. She is self-conscious of her weight, which many teenage girls struggle with these days.  Many girls are influenced by the supermodels and celebrities they see on various media (TV, magazines, and etc.) As a result, girls feel uncomfortable in their own skin, and believe that they should look like those people in the media. Yet, I praise Rainbow Rowell for creating a curvaceous female protagonist. Although Eleanor is uncomfortable with her body, Park helps her realize that it isn’t on the outside, but on the inside that matters.

Also, I enjoyed the characterization of Park, who is of mixed heritage. He is half white and half Korean. Some may argue that the descriptions on Asian culture is fairly stereotypical, or in fact, racist. However, I do like to point out that some of the commentary seems somewhat relevant. For instance, Park’s mom, who is Korean, came from a big family, and had to work and take care of her many siblings. Hence, her life in Korea was tough because there wasn’t enough food on the table, and her family had to make use with what they had. Yet now, she is married and has a career as a beautician which is a better life than what she had before. Park’s mom seems to care a lot about her children and hopes that they find happiness and live a good childhood. While reading this novel, I could understand Park’s mom’s perspective because I, too, have parents like that: hardworking parents who strive to give their children a better life than what they had.

Furthermore, Rainbow Rowell discusses the masculine and feminine identity by questioning Park’s gender role. Park is described as a “pretty boy.” Park shows his femininity by proudly wearing eyeliner, and willing to let his mom experiment new beauty products on him. His father strongly opposes these actions because he thinks Park isn’t acting like a real man. Yet Park shows his masculinity by defending his girlfriend, Eleanor. He gets into a fight with a bully who was making fun of Eleanor, which by the way, Park’s dad is somewhat proud of because physical strength seems to be a trait of masculinity. Rowell blends gender roles within Park’s character. It seems that she is making the statement that gender roles should not be categorized as only men are masculine and women are feminine.

Lastly, I praise Rainbow Rowell’s pop culture allusions throughout the novel. While reading, I enjoyed being able to identity and understand these pop culture references which are like literary allusions. Some of these references include Doctor Who, The Smiths, and various Marvel comic book titles.

Overall, Eleanor & Park is an enjoyable novel to read. Rowell explores difficult topics that occur during adolescence. Yet despite the seriousness, this is a very cute, adorable novel about first love. Eleanor & Park clearly depicts the flow of first loves; what it is like and what happens along the way.

If you are interested in reading more Rainbow Rowell books, check out my posts on Attachments and her short story in My True Love Gave to Me.


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