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Literature / Eleanor & Park

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"I just can't believe that life would give us to each other," he said, "and then take it back."
"I can," she said. "Life's a bastard."

Eleanor & Park is a 2013 Young Adult novel by Rainbow Rowell.

It's 1986. Eleanor is the new girl in town, returning home to her mother, stepfather, and brothers and sister after spending a year away from them. With her chaotic family life, her mismatched fashion sense, and her bright red hair, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Park is the boy at the back of the bus. Withdrawn, bookwormish, and in a stable family, he's convinced he's made himself invisible. After Eleanor ends up as Park's reluctant bus seatmate, they start out hating each other. But slowly, over mixtapes and comic books and late-night phone calls, Eleanor and Park fall in love, and have to deal with the consequences.

Notable mainly for two things: being insanely popular (it was voted 2013's best YA book on and for being banned in a number of school districts thanks to the usual suspects of Moral Guardians (principally for the depiction of underaged sexual relationships).

Eleanor and Park contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Eleanor's home life is far from ideal: her stepfather Richie is emotionally and verbally abusive to her and her siblings, while her biological father is uncaring and distant. Eleanor's mother ends up catering to Richie's every whim, and is unwilling or unable to leave him. Near the final act, it's heavily implied that Richie is a sexual predator with his eyes on Eleanor.
  • Adults Are Useless: Discussed, played horrifyingly straight in the case of Eleanor's parents and step-parents, and mostly averted with Park's parents.
  • The Alcoholic: Richie. He's always seen drinking or drunk to some degree. He spends a lot of time at various bars and has driven drunk with the kids more than once.
  • Alpha Bitch: Tina, who is the most popular girl at school and tries her best to make Eleanor feel unwelcome.
  • Ambiguously Brown: In-universe, Eleanor describes Park's skin as honey-gold and tries to guess his ethnicity. He's Korean-American.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It’s never really revealed how Richie found out about Park. It’s possible he might’ve seen the comics or makeup after Ben and Maisie started borrowing them, or has been investigating things offscreen.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling:
    • Despite Eleanor's love for her brothers and sister, they fall into this often. Especially Mouse.
    • Josh for Park. It doesn't help that he's a Big Little Brother.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Averted with Eleanor’s baby half brother, Little Richie. His birth did not help his father be nicer or bring the family together. In fact, his existence is one of the reasons why Sabrina won’t leave Richie.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign:
    • Sometimes accused with this when it comes to Park’s name. While "Park" is one of the most common Korean surnames, it's virtually never used as a given name. Calling a Korean person "Park" is like calling an Irish person "O'Connor". Rowell has stated that naming a child after the mother's maiden name is a common practice in the US.
    • Mindy's birth name has received similar criticism. Her birth name was Min-Dae, which isn't even a real Korean name.
  • Bad Bedroom, Bad Life: Eleanor and her four younger siblings all share a tiny bedroom that’s just big enough for a bunk bed and a dresser. The boys sleep on the floor with just some pillows and blankets. It gets worse for Ben in particular after his twelfth birthday, where Richie declares that he’s too old to sleep alongside his brothers and sisters and tries to get him to sleep in the basement instead....and Ben is afraid of the dark.
  • Berserk Button:
    • For Park, it's making Eleanor upset. When Steve makes fun of her, Park kicks his teeth in.
    • For Eleanor, it's being asked about her family and past. She really doesn't want to talk about it.
  • Big Little Brother: Park fears his younger brother Josh will become this at the rate he's growing.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Eleanor gets out of her terrible family situation thanks to Park and her uncle taking her in, but can't see Park because of the distance. But Eleanor is also able to get her mother to leave Richie and take the kids with her.
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: When Eleanor hears gunshots near her house at night:
    Gang members, she thought. Drug dealers. Rapists. Gang members who were also drug-dealing rapists.
  • Brick Joke: It is stated at the very beginning of the book that Steve often breaks his fingers when punching people. A few dozen pages later, he and Park fight; Parks knocks his teeth of with a kick and Steve punches in return, hard, and breaks his fingers.
  • Book Worm: Eleanor loves to read.
  • Broken Bird: Eleanor's past hasn't been the nicest.
    Eleanor: Barriers. Caution tape. I'm doing you a favor.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: Eleanor says Park's father looks like Tom Selleck.
  • Central Theme: The Power of Love doesn’t fix everything in the couple’s lives, such as abusive family members or personal alienation. But having someone in your life who understands can help you get through it.
    • If you’re in an increasingly unsafe environment, get out of there. Otherwise, it will only get worse.
  • Chick Magnet: It's implied Park's good looks net him a lot of female attention he doesn't really reciprocate, such as Kim and the girl from work.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Beebi and De Nice disappear once Eleanor finally begins to escape her family situation. It is not known what happens to them afterwards.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Eleanor to Park. For starters, she flips out when she finds out that Park used to go out with Tina, the girl whose making her life a living hell at school.
  • Cool Big Sis: Eleanor tries to be this for her siblings, comforting them when their mother and stepfather fight. She's not perfect, but she cares about them.
  • The Cynic: Eleanor, and for good reason.
    • Her younger siblings Ben and Maisie are also starting to become this due to their situation.
  • Dad the Veteran: Park's father served in Korea during the Vietnam War; he met his mother Mindy there and brought her home with him to America. As such, he's sufficiently somewhat aloof to Park.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Much of Eleanor’s thoughts and dialogue are snarky.
  • Defeat Means Respect: getting his teeth kicked in by Park gets Steve and his friend group to leave Park and Eleanor alone.
  • Defacement Insult: Eleanor gets this as part of the bullying from Tina and her possy.
  • Domestic Abuse: Richie yells at, throws things and hits Sabrina frequently. Eleanor usually finds herself comforting her siblings regularly when their fights break out, when they're not sleeping through the noise.
  • The '80s: Oh, so very much. In a more realistic way than other works.
  • '80s Hair:
    • Tina has a massive hairdo.
    • Park's mother is mentioned to have the same hairstyle as Tina.
  • Every One Calls Him Barkeep: Mouse. His birth name is Jeremiah, but they've called him Mouse since he was a baby for reasons Eleanor can't remember.
  • Fiery Redhead: A lot of emphasis is given to Eleanor's bright red hair. Her abrasiveness is partly because of this.
  • Flyover Country: The book is set in suburban Omaha, Nebraska.
  • Foreshadowing: The class discussion on Romeo and Juliet, the most famous Star-Crossed Lovers in English history. Eleanor expresses disgust with the idea that Romeo feels true love for a girl he just met. This plays out when Park drives Eleanor to her uncle's house to keep her safe.
  • Foster Kid: Richie once threw Eleanor out of the house in a fit of rage, and she spent an entire year living with family friends.
  • "Gender-Normative Parent" Plot: Jamie is disappointed with Park not being traditionally masculine.
  • Guys Smash, Girls Shoot: While they bond over comics Eleanor brings up this propensity in superhero comics
  • Gym Class Hell: Many of Eleanor's insecurities come from having to wear tight outfits in gym combined with both an over enthusiastic gym teacher and bullying from the other girls.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Richie gets mad at the drop of a hat, part of his Abusive Parents schtick. This is made obvious when we find out he once kicked Eleanor out.
  • Happily Married: Park's parents are clearly very much into each other, in stark contrast to Eleanor's broken family. This is partly why she doesn't initially feel like she belongs with him.
  • Halloween Costume Characterization: Park reminisces on some Halloween costumes he wore as a child that nobody got, such as Doctor Who and Harpo Marx. This ties into both being a geek and his difficulties fitting into his predominantly white and non-geeky community.
  • Horrible Housing: Eleanor, her mother, stepfather and four younger siblings all live in a tiny two bedroom house. The five kids are all crammed in one room, with the girls in a bunk bed and the boys sleeping on the floor. There’s only one bathroom which is attached to the kitchen with no door and they use the bathtub to do laundry.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl:
    • Steve is huge, while his girlfriend Tina barely breaks five feet.
    • Park's father is much larger than his mother. At one point, they are compared to Paul Bunyan and an It's a Small World doll respectively.
  • Iconic Outfit: Not exactly iconic, but Eleanor's Vans with strawberries on them and her green sharkskin jacket get mentioned a lot throughout the book.
  • I Know Kung Fu: Park knows taekwondo, and uses it to smash Steve's teeth in at point.
  • Interchangeable Asian Cultures:
    • At one point, taekwondo is treated as interchangeable with kung fu. The former is Korean while the latter is Chinese. (To make matters worse, taekwondo is also misspelled as "taekwando".)
    • Eleanor refers to Park's mom a "dainty China person".
    • Eleanor talks about Park's "ninja magic" at one point. Park is Korean, and ninjas are Japanese.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Eleanor considers staying at home for the summer, to be with Park, but he drives her to her uncle's house to keep her safe from Richie.
  • In Touch with His Feminine Side: Park, by his own admission. While he enjoys comics and does taekwondo and is seen playing basketball at one point, he says himself that he wasn't the traditionally masculine son his father wanted. His father completely flips out when Park wears makeup to school.
  • Lecherous Stepparent: The climax is Eleanor discovering that her stepfather has been writing increasingly creepy and sexual notes on her textbooks. He’s also been eyeing her for some time as well, and Eleanor fears that he might also go after her nine year old sister, Maisie. This results in her running away to her uncle and aunt with the help of Park.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Park becomes this to Eleanor early on; spending time with him becomes her motivation for going on because of her shitty home and school life. He seems to have willingly embraced this role, however, saying that he wanted to do everything in his power to make her happy.
  • Lonely Bachelor Pad: Eleanor’s father used to live in one right after he and her mother split up. According to Eleanor, he once served her clam chowder in a highball glass due to not having enough bowls and only had two towels.
  • Love Martyr: Sabrina is this to Richie. She does everything for him, cooking and cleaning and giving him space. He in turn hits and makes life hell for her. It’s implied that he’s isolating her so she can’t leave him.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Both Eleanor and Park break traditional gender roles.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings:
    • Eleanor, at sixteen is the oldest of five children. After her there's: Ben, (who is eleven, but turns twelve shortly before Christmas.) Maisie, (nine, and the only other daughter.) Mouse/Jeremiah, (five, and the youngest of Eleanor's biological siblings.) and Little Richie. (two, and the son of Richie, making him her half brother.) She also has a stepbrother, Matt.
    • Park's mother is the oldest of six siblings (three brothers and three sisters).
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Park's parents.
  • Mixed Ancestry Is Attractive: Park and Josh are half-white and half-Korean. Josh is white passing, but Eleanor reacts with interest to Park's more "Asian" features, such as his darker skin and almond-shaped eyes. His eyes are also green, despite this being unlikely.
  • Mixtape of Love: Park makes Eleanor mix tapes of bands such as The Smiths and Joy Division upon learning her interest in them. She in turn makes him a mixtape of Beatles songs. Their mutual love of music leads to them falling in love with each other.
  • New Transfer Student: Eleanor at the beginning of the book.
  • Nice Guy: Park, who is unassuming, approachable, devoted, and extraordinarily kind to Eleanor.
  • No Endor Holocaust: At the end of the book, Eleanor while living with her aunt and uncle writes a letter to her mother threatening to call the police if she doesn't leave with Eleanor's brothers and sister. When Park comes across the house, he realizes that Richie has been living alone.
  • No Name Given: We never find out the name of Eleanor's father. He's only called "her/your father", Dad, and he/him.
  • Outdated Outfit: Eleanor can't afford clothes that don't come from Goodwill or thrift stores, so her clothes are implied to be more late 60's-70'sish. It doesn't help that most of her clothes are men's clothes, because of her size.
  • Parental Favoritism: Out of all the kids, Richie seems to hate Maisie the least, letting her watch television with him, and giving her a keyboard “Because she likes to sing.” Until Eleanor realizes that he may be grooming her for sexual abuse.
  • Parental Neglect: Eleanor's father is this to her and her siblings, and hasn't really learned his lesson with his stepson.
    • Richie barely acknowledges Little Richie, the youngest son and his only biological child, save for the Pet the Dog moments featured below.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Double-subverted. After helping Eleanor escape Richie, he comes across the latter drunk, and completely inebriated. Park considers killing him, but instead kicks dirt into his face. Richie completely deserved it.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Richie giving all his stepchildren Christmas presents. (Fifty dollars to buy clothes for Eleanor, a toy car racetrack for Ben, a keyboard for Maisie, a remote control car for Mouse, and a teddy bear for Little Richie.) Subverted in that Eleanor doesn't appreciate it and she gives the money to her mother for xmas dinner.
    • He also takes the kids to see Short Circuit at one point.
    • On the night Eleanor runs away, Tina and Steve comfort her and take her in for a while. Tina also notably does not sell Eleanor out to Richie when asked about her whereabouts.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Tina, Steve, and their cronies are portrayed as ignorant, sizeist, and racist.
  • Poverty Food:
    • Eleanor and her family eat a lot of beans, grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen pizzas, generic brand cereal, and tuna fish. Eleanor is baffled that she's always hungry, but she's still fat.
    • Averted with Richie, who gets steak, bacon, and egg sandwiches, and when the family eats Christmas dinner, which consists of turkey, mashed potatoes with dill and butter, rice pudding, and pepper cookies.
  • Pretty Boy: Park. Eleanor praises his good looks several times, and at one point calls him prettier than a girl in her narration.
  • Red Herring: It wasn't Tina or any of her cronies writing disgusting things on Eleanor's books — it was actually Richie.
  • Redheads Are Uncool: Eleanor is picked on at school for having a weird fashion sense, being a fat girl, and having bright red hair.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What were the three words Eleanor wrote to Park in the end? All we know that it was a positive message due to Park’s reaction.
    • What happened to Eleanor’s mother and siblings after they left Richie? They aren’t at his house, but they’re not with Eleanor in St. Paul, either.
    • How did Richie find out about Park? And for that matter, how did he get access to write on Eleanor’s textbooks without her or anyone else catching him?
    • What’s Eleanor’s father’s name? It’s never revealed, and he’s only ever called “her father.”
  • The Runaway: Eleanor becomes this at the end, Park having spirited her away to live with her uncle in Minnesota on the night they discover Richie's intentions.
  • Satellite Character:
    • Cal (and by extension Kim) only exist to interact with Park and remind the readers that he has a life besides Eleanor.
    • Eleanor's youngest brother, Little Richie is hardly ever seen or given any lines. His main purpose appears to be to have a reason why Sabrina won't leave Richie. Eleanor doesn't seem to like him much, calling him "the baby" in her narration.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Both DeNice and Beebi regularly partake in healthy amounts of sass.
  • Secret-Keeper: Ben and Maisie both become this for Eleanor, having learned from Josh and his girlfriend Bonnie about them. Eleanor had to bribe them with comic books for Ben and makeup for Maisie to prevent them from telling their mother.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shown Their Work: The timeline of the plot and the original publication dates of Watchmen line up exactly.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Park feels as if his father favors Josh over him.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Park's parents. When Eleanor comments that they're Happily Married, Park's narration says she doesn't have the half of it and that they were probably making out right now.
  • Stacy's Mom: Steve calls Park's mom hot in one scene, much to his disgust; Eleanor also calls her pretty. Eleanor's mother is also beautiful; Park's grandmother compares her to a movie star at one point.
  • Starbucks Skin Scale: Eleanor compares the half-Korean Park's skin to honey.
  • Stepford Snarker: Eleanor hides her pain and trauma with sarcasm.
  • Supreme Chef: Eleanor's mother is a great cook when she has actual food to work with, other than beans or grilled cheese sandwiches. This is shown off when she prepares turkey and dill potatoes for Christmas dinner.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Eleanor has realized that her stepfather has been writing perverted notes on her textbooks and plans to sexually abuse her. In a different YA novel, the heroine would come up with a plan to confront him and get herself and her family out of the situation. However, Eleanor has a more accurate reaction: first being frozen in shock and horror, then blindly fleeing. She comes up with a plan, but it only gets her out. And she needs Park’s help, otherwise she likely wouldn’t have made it. Her narration lampshades this trope:
    Eleanor: If Eleanor were the hero of some book, like The Boxcar Children or something, she’d try. If she were Dicey Tillerman, she’d find a way. She’d be brave and noble, and she’d find a way. But she wasn’t. Eleanor wasn’t any of those things. She was just trying to get through the night.
  • Team Mom: Eleanor to her younger siblings; they clearly look up to her and she comforts them in times of crisis.
  • Teen Pregnancy:
    • Discussed between Eleanor and Sabrina when the latter tells the former that the teenage daughter of a family friend has gotten pregnant by a black boy, and the family is in an uproar over it.
    • It's also implied that Sabrina and her first husband had Eleanor when they were in high school.
  • Token Black Friend: White protagonist Eleanor gets two token black friends at school, DeNice and Beebi, a Those Two Girls duo who exist to commentate on her life.
  • That Nostalgia Show: Released in 2013, set in 1986-1987. Various musical and cultural references are mentioned throughout the book.
  • Those Two Girls: DeNice and Beebi, two black girls who befriend Eleanor after one of Tina's bullying incidents, are often around to bolster her confidence, eat lunch with her, and provide running commentary on happenings.
  • Twice Shy: The two eponymous characters begin like this, developing their romance just by sitting next to each other on the bus, not even speaking.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Richie Trout and Sabrina Douglas, Eleanor’s stepfather and mother. She’s a stunning woman in her late thirties married to a younger man who’s described as “the human version of a rat.”
  • Understanding Boyfriend: Park embodies this trope. He's protective of Eleanor, helps her grow out of her insecurities, and shares her interests. He's this trope to the point of being willing to drive her to Minnesota in the middle of the night so she can get away from Richie, even if it means their separation.
  • The Unreveal: Eleanor's postcard to Park at the end of the book is "Just three words long", but exactly what the three words are is never revealed.
  • Visit by Divorced Dad: Inverted when Eleanor goes to visit her dad to babysit her stepbrother.
  • Wanted a Gender-Conforming Child: Jamie towards Park. Jamie is a traditionally masculine man and has tried to get Park interested in more stereotypically masculine interests but to no avail. When Park decides to wear eyeliner to school, Jamie completely loses his cool.
  • Weight Woe: Eleanor is insecure about her weight, and that's what she believes to be the reason for her unpopularity.
  • When She Smiles: Defied.
    Park: Hey. I told you to smile because you're pretty when you smile.
    Eleanor: It'd be better if you thought I was pretty when I don't.
  • Wicked Stepmother:
    • Richie is a Rare Male Example, who picks on his stepchildren, is often drunk, is abusive to Eleanor's mother Sabrina, and is a sexual predator. None of his stepchildren actually like having him around.
    • Averted by Eleanor's actual stepmother, married to her distant biological father. She catches Eleanor stealing from them, but looks the other way and doesn't say anything about it.
    • Tina is implied to have a bad stepfather, although it’s unclear if he’s abusive like Eleanor’s or just a Jerkass.
  • You No Take Candle: Park's mother speaks like this, years after she came to America from Korea.