My actual rating is 0.5 for effort and because I actually want to read Rowell’s other book, Fangirl.
Eleanor & Park is a racist piece of shit.
Don’t get me wrong — I am ALL about Asian-American representation. I applaud Rowell for writing a story about a MoC and a white woman, since that pairing is not as commonly seen as a WoC and a white man. So interracial relationships aren’t a problem. The problem is that the interracial interpersonal relationships in this book are poorly written and riddled with stereotypes.
Before you jump to Rowell’s defense about how it was set in the 80’s and in Omaha, I want to remind you that racism (sadly) is not limited to a time frame or a region. The racism that happened in 1986 is not difference than the racism that is happening how. Since before and after 1986, there is still racism directed at Asian-Americans in the form of bad kung-fu jokes, “You are Asian=You are Chinese” assumptions, “What flavor of Asian are you” guessing games, and Bruce Lee references. That’s right, those things do not just happen in this book. I know, I have experienced it myself, having lived in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona.
The sad thing is that half these descriptions are obviously supposed to be flattering except they are not.
Maybe Park paralyzed her with his ninja magic
“…You’re so pretty, and so good. You have magic eyes,” she whispered. “And you make me feel like a cannibal.”
I would have actually felt better if Rainbow Rowell had written Park as a vampire or a werewolf or some other inhuman creature, the stuff of teen girl YA fantasy because vampires and werewolves don’t actually exist. With such creatures, she could write about whatever the hell she wanted, because at least she wouldn’t contributing to some very harmful societal stereotypes. But she did. She is now a participant in a lasting tradition of fetishizing Asians.
But back to the creature thing. Park is portrayed as an “edgy”* indie boy who wears eyeliner and listens to the Smiths and is also a loner at school. It’s like his edginess make him
magical stand out in the same way a vampire or a werewolf or otherwise nonhuman creature would. The descriptions of Park made me think of Twilight. Not because they are things that normal teen girls say or think, but because we’ve seen this archetype of “magical hero” that comes into this special-because-she’s-not-like-the-other’s-dream-girl’s life and sweeps her off her feet. When you use those kinds of descriptors for a character who is very visibly POC and then give them an uncommon feature like green eyes, they become a kind of mythical creature. They are dehumanized and not real, they are just a fantasy that the other (usually main) character wants to have. But even then, dreaming about dating a vampire or a werewolf is so very different and again does not carry the same weight as being hellbent on dating the perfect Asian boy.
Since I touched on the fetishization of Asians, I must bring up the insecurities that Park may feel about being an Asian-American boy. Park never overcame his self-hate for being short and feminine compared to his father and younger brother, Josh. In fact (as if Asian men aren’t emasculated enough in American society), when Park’s father is shown throwing a bitch fit about Park wearing eyeliner and is shown favoring Josh (who is described as taller, “more white,” and more masculine than Park), Park’s father is upholding the image of Asian men as short, effeminate, sensitive, and undesirable. If Park learned to accept himself and move past his insecurities, then it would be a decent book because character growth is an important aspect in writing fiction. But that didn’t happen. Overall, his self-hate and insecurities were ever discussed in a respectful manner.
“Nobody thinks Asian guys are hot,” Park said finally. He had to look away from her when he said it – way away, he turned his head completely. “Not here, anyway. I assume Asian guys do all right in Asia.”
“That’s not true,” Eleanor argued. “Look at your mom and dad…”
“Asian girls are different. White guys think they’re exotic.”
“Are you trying to come up with a super-hot Asian guy, so you can prove me wrong? Because there aren’t any. I’ve had my whole life to think about this.”
“There aren’t any,” Park said. “Look at M*A*S*H. The whole show is set in Korea, and the doctors are always flirting with Korean girls, right?…Everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls.”
Oh yes, this just got worse. Here, Park blatantly reinforces the idea that Asian men are undesirable, and he perpetrates the misogynistic and racist belief that Asian women have it better because white guys desire them. “Exotic.” THAT’S NOT A FUCKING COMPLIMENT. That’s fetishization. Do you know what I, an Asian-American female, have to put up with because of it? Constant verbal and sexual harassment, a higher chance of being raped than white women, endless “dragon lady” and “geisha girl” stereotypes, and all the other gross things. Even Eleanor contributes to this harmful mentality.
“Maybe I’m really attracted to Korean guys,” she said, “and I don’t even know it.”
So instead of encouraging to accept and embrace his identity as an Asian-American boy, the white girl makes him feel better by stating that she likes his “exoticism” and thinks that he’s “prettier than any girl.” But wait…it gets worse…
His mom looked exactly like a doll. In the Wizard of Oz…Dorothy goes to this place called Dainty China Country, and all the people are tiny and perfect…Eleanor had thought the Dainty China people were Chinese…Eleanor imagined Park’s dad, Tom Selleck, tucking his Dainty China person into his flak jacket and sneaking her out of Korea.
“[H]is Dainty China person”…Just because there’s the word “person” at the end doesn’t make this any better. Park’s mom, whose Americanized name is Mindy, is still turned into an object to be moved at Tom’s whim. The argument against this would be that it was sweet of Tom to “liberate” Mindy from her oppressive/dangerous country then marry her. He took her away from her country, her home, her culture, her language, and her people. How romantic. But seriously, like, Miss Saigon, anyone? Mindy speaks broken English and is demure yet madly in love with Tom, who is a typical American machismo, a simple guy, but at heart a good one. If Mindy and Tom’s relationship wasn’t written like it was a one-sided yellow-fever wet dream, I would have been more interested in it. But the indecent stereotyping of Asian women doesn’t stop with Mindy.
When Eleanor was around girls like that—like Park’s mom, like Tina, like most of the girls in the neighborhood—she wondered where they put their organs…Eleanor knew she was fat, but she didn’t feelthat fat…Park’s mom could wear Eleanor’s rib cage like a roomy vest.
Not only is this passage depressing because it upholds the false assumption that all Asian women are “thin, pretty, and petite,” it also shows Eleanor’s own self-hatred and fat-shaming. I understand that she has issues with her insecurities, but (like what I wanted to see in Park) she never overcame them. I didn’t see her character grow, in fact she remained static throughout the novel. I know she isn’t suppose to be perfect and I’m glad she has very realistic issues, but I was disappointed by her constant need to run away, hide, and alienate. Eleanor would sort of getting close to Park, then freaking out and pushes him away. This cycle was repeated ad nauseam.
Also, note that it’s not just Eleanor who is racist, but also essentially everyone in the neighborhood and school. In the neighborhood, when a girl becomes pregnant, residents were not worried about the act of unprotected sex and conception. No. They were too focused on the fact that the girl’s boyfriend was black. At school, Eleanor makes a monologue about how she want to spend more time with her white peers in the Honors classes by taking less regular classes where all the blacks are. Say whatever you want about how she’s expressing her want for social interaction, but I found that this passage could have been written without too much mention of race. Alas it wasn’t, because the whole book is full of racial stereotypes for blacks (as well as Asians) and it revolves around this white girl “who isn’t like all those other weird white girls.”
I’m sure Rowell doesn’t condone racism, but I feel as though she is unaware of the implications her treatment of race in this book has. She clearly didn’t do enough research when writing about cultural and historical issues, but that doesn’t give her an excuse to be completely sloppy and/or disrespectful when handling them.
However, racism was only one of the problems with this book. I felt as those Eleanor’s situation was over exaggerated. That is, her struggling with familial issues, poverty, alcoholism, and bullying didn’t seem authentic. I’m sure these issues can all occur simultaneously, but in the end I stopped caring about Eleanor’s family situation because the way Rowell handled it wasn’t doing it for me. Her relationship with her family members was one-dimensional, superficial. I didn’t see the literary depth to it; her relationship was a device to make Eleanor more sympathetic to the reader. The device broke on me.
I found the romance to be a la Romeo and Juliet and bland. The idea of the romantic development of the title characters (girl and boy meet and connect over mix-tapes and comic book) is cute and charming, but was poorly and unrealistically executed. Eleanor and Park spend several week after their first encounter not talking at all, until Park lends Eleanor one of his comic books. But they still don’t talk when they read comic books together on the bus. Next thing that happens (within two chapters to be specific), Park proclaims his love for Eleanor despite both bemoaning the fact they know little about each other. (I’ll give him credit for taking it slower than Romeo.)** They never truly knew each, until maybe some important secrets were revealed until the final chapters. Their love is founded on illusions and fantasies they have made of each other; it is not true love, despite their shared passion for music and comic books.
All the potential this initially seem to have quickly vanished as I cracked out the book and started Chapter 1. I would love to forget about it, but I can’t. Eleanor & Park is highly problematic and has no true plot(s). No matter how much I tried to not get infuriated by the messages and execution of the book…resistance was futile.
If you want to read it, I won’t stop you. You have been warned.
*Quick comment on the following description Park’s “edginess”:
Park didn’t look pretty. He looked dangerous. Like Ming the Merciless.
Yes, “Like Ming the Merciless.” Who, as you might know from the Flash Gordon comic, was originally introduced in 1934 and is a pretty clear stand-in for yellow peril.