You can’t choose your family. You can’t decide what your parents, siblings, or grandparents will be like. In the story both Eleanor and Park find themselves navigating and working out the best ways to live with their families despite hardships that they both face. Though there is a big gap in the level of the issues in Eleanor and Park’s lives they both represent problems real teenagers have in their lives and with their families. Family in Eleanor and Park is a big but underlying theme in the story and is a major contributor to the course of the story.
The first look at Eleanor’s home life we get is very poor. Right away we can see the strained ties in the family and not even just between Eleanor and Richie. Thought it’s subtle there is a slight disconnect between Eleanor and the other children. During the first time we meet her family, Eleanor expresses surprise in how much her sister has grown without her their. The dynamic of the siblings is disjointed. In the time that Eleanor has been away the children have shifted from their prior behavior of rejecting and fighting against Richie to appeasement. The children do what he tells them, and now interact with him in ways they didn’t before. To Eleanor’s surprise the children now spend time with him ,with Maisie even being seen sitting on his lap, and they also call him ‘Dad” now. The kids had to deal with the separation the best way they could. Instead of resisting and fighting like Eleanor did, the children do what Richie says and even try to appease him by calling him “dad”. This isn’t what Eleanor remembered it being like and though she doesn’t push away, she does keep distance from the idea of giving in to Richie’s way. This distance causes her to not trust the other kids to know information she doesn’t want Richie and Eleanor’s mom to know. She even tells Park that her siblings have “confused allegiances”.
In addition to just showing different troubles with family in general The story also places a big focus on what a “Father” is. Not only does the story present 3 very different types of fathers but it also asks what a father is and what is it supposed to feel like to have one. When Eleanor asks Ben if Richie feel like his dad Ben says “I don’t know,… What’s that supposed to feel like”(Rowell 62). Eleanor can’t even answer the question. Even though she knows that Richie doesn’t feel like her dad she can’t explain what it would feel like. There is no right way to be a dad but the story shows very clearly that there are wrong ways. This story also shows very real depictions on what a dad could be like. Many teens most likely grew up with a father similar to Park’s dad. Though he doesn’t agree with everything Park wants to do and has his own way of seeing the world it doesn’t stop him from loving Park or treating him well. If he was perfect it wouldn’t be a relatable and the message the author was portraying about family would be very different.
No one’s family is perfect and this book shows that especially with Eleanor. Richie is short-tempered,violent, and abusive. We aren’t shown much besides his violent , and drunken outbursts but what we are shown doesn’t paint him in any better light. He is shown to be suspicious and crude to Eleanor and her mom. Even when we see him doing a seemingly nice gesture like buying them gifts for Christmas its apparent he didn’t give them to the children because he loves them so much. He expects praise and gives the presents so that he can feel good. What we see of her actual father isn’t much better. He has all but abandoned Eleanor and her siblings. He would rather focus on his new life and his own happiness that what would be best for the children. He doesn’t mention when Eleanor goes to see him, meaning he either can’t recognize signs of abuse or doesn’t care enough about others to try and pay attention.
These two “members” of Eleanor’s family have left their mark on Eleanor and effect her life. Rowell shows us that for better or worse your family shapes who you are and during the late teen years when you’re not a child anymore but you’re also not really an adult it can be hard to stay whole. In Eleanor’s case even though we are shown her being bullied it’s not what had been breaking her, the struggle of trying to keep herself together despite living in fear of Richie and being separated from friends and people who cared about her from where she was before. It’s fortunate that Eleanor met Park because if she hadn’t she might have broken completely. Eleanor internalized a lot of her issues so if was going to fall apart it most likely wouldn’t have been noticeable until it was too late.
Park grows up in the type of family that seems the most ordinary to people. Parents who love each other, not having to worry about food or batteries or toothbrushes. He has the type of problems that many others wished they had. Which isn’t to say that he shouldn’t want things to be better or that his problems don’t matter. Park’s problems might not be a crushing as Eleanor’s but they too affect who he is as a person. Park’s connection with family is especially important because more people will experience problems like his that aren’t easy to deal with. Park’s personal identity is in opposition to what his father wants and feeling like you don’t measure up to what’s expected of you weighs you down. If you have constant reminders that you’re different and not good enough the way you approach life can become twisted. Though Park’s family doesn’t actually say that Park isn’t good enough and most likely don’t feel that way, the fact that that’s how Park feels would be enough to cause damage to him. In this regard is also good that Park met Eleanor because she doesn’t have any preconceived idea of what he should be like she likes him for who he is and that too affects Park mindset.
At the conclusion of the story even though the romantic plot is left open ended both Eleanor and Park are at a point where we as audience can see that they will be ok. They survived through their problems together and this is important to audiences who really relate to their struggles. In many aspects I feel that I can relate with Eleanor and Park’s family issues especially how their relationships with their fathers affect their lives. Throughout the book I felt that I understood many of their struggles because I had experienced similar things in my own life. Having a connection to the characters is important because it opens up your mind to the things in the story that you’re not familiar with.
Rowell isn’t trying to portray high school as a time of stability and minor issues. Living in an unstable household does break you down but remaining strong and continuing to move forward will put you in a better place later. Though the book shows the many issues Eleanor and park have with their families, we can also see the families supporting each other. Eleanor’s mother despite the danger protects Eleanor and tries to do her best to take whatever Richie gives her on her own. Park’s mother also tries to protect and understand Park even when the things she has to support him go against the things she’s used too. In the case of the makeup Park’s mom tries to understand why he wants to wear it instead of just completely shutting him down. Family is complicated and the way it’s portrayed in the story really shows the shaping of each character throughout the length of the story.
Eleanor and Park is about two teens who fall in love and come together while getting through their struggles in life, school, and especially with their families. Each character’s family has problems but they are able to get through them together . In the realm of the story many of these familial problems greatly affect the plot and become driving forces in the story. The families in the story are shown to be very different and each present very different problems for Eleanor and Park. Overcoming problems and finding the best solution is just one of the many ways the story showed what it’s like to survive and act like a family.
Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 2013