Eleanor gives Park a copy of The Catcher in the Rye for Christmas. Park gives her perfume from his mom and a necklace from him.
Park is self-conscious about the necklace, but he fastens it around Eleanor’s neck.
Eleanor has promised to be entirely open with Park, but she doesn’t feel quite ready to tell him all the details of the Christmas dinner yet, so instead she just talks about watching movies. Eleanor spends the rest of Christmas vacation at Park’s house, but tells her mom that she’s at Tina’s. Eleanor remembers that when Richie was first dating her mom, Richie gave her mom lots of compliments, and at that time, Eleanor didn’t think that anyone could be worse to her mom than her dad had been. In school, Tina calls Eleanor a very dirty name, but DeNice and Beebi rally around Eleanor and talk about how cute Park is.
Cal asks Park about Eleanor and says that everyone knows they’re going out.
Even though Eleanor & Park is primarily about the relationship between these two main characters, the ups and downs of their relationships help shed light on what’s going on with the adults in their world. Eleanor’s mom is extremely defensive about her relationship with Richie because she wants to maintain the fiction that everything is fine, and because she thinks that if anything goes wrong, it’s her fault. Eleanor’s mom clings to any hint of stability and protection that Richie can offer, and she wants to smooth over anything that might rock the boat. Eleanor’s mom keeps giving Richie more chances, even when Richie proves time and time again that he is abusive and cruel to their whole family. She thinks that the only way their family life will work is to keep Richie happy, though this is an impossible task, because Richie is liable to blow up at any moment over any random thing. To protect herself and to try and make their family life work, Eleanor’s mom blocks out Eleanor’s emotions and attempts to push Eleanor’s behavior toward the actions that she thinks will help the family. Eleanor’s mom’s warped perception of the world and her insistence on the fantasy that things are going well blocks her from being able to be sympathetic toward her daughter. Rather than paying attention to Eleanor’s feelings, Eleanor’s mom wants Eleanor to ignore her own emotions and pretend that everything is fine.
But everything is definitely not fine in Eleanor’s house. Eleanor’s mom makes a special Christmas dinner with a dessert that’s been a tradition in Eleanor’s family since her mom was a little girl. But because the dessert isn’t what Richie wanted, Richie gets furious and needs to assert his dominance over every aspect of their life. Richie is a bully and a tyrant in the household. Everything has to be going according to Richie’s whim, even if the whim was not made extremely clear, and even if the whim seems trivial. If Richie is displeased, he turns his anger against the rest of the household and blames anyone other than himself. Richie has no compassion and no sense that anyone else’s emotions have any validity. Instead of trying to please anyone else, he only tries to please himself, and he does not care that Eleanor’s mom might have her own feelings that are independent of pleasing him. Richie’s selfishness sucks the confidence and happiness out of the family’s house, and Richie manipulates the household by tossing out little bits of affection, much like giving a starving a dog a bone. Giving the little kids presents suggests that he cares about them, when in reality it just shows how much he wants to make them feel as though they’re dependent on him to take care of them. He is able to feign kindness by tossing them a random present. Richie tries to buy Eleanor’s affection by giving her money. Eleanor takes his gift in front of him, but behind his back, she rejects the gift and hands it back to her mother. The money is dirty money to Eleanor, and she couldn’t spend it because it came from Richie’s hands. However, Eleanor’s mom takes the fifty dollars, though she seems somewhat ashamed as she doesn’t even look Eleanor in the eye when she takes it. Eleanor’s mom knows, deep down, that Richie is abusive and bad for the family, but she feels like she’s too invested in their relationship to back out now.
Luckily, when Richie storms off in a huff on Christmas, he doesn’t physically abuse anyone. Eleanor’s mom and siblings can pretend to celebrate the rest of the evening with their traditional pudding, even though Richie has knocked most of it over. Eleanor’s mom wordlessly demonstrates a little bit of defiance against Richie and solidarity with her kids when she refuses to let his foul mood ruin the rest of their evening. No one acknowledges the violence, instead pretending that everything is okay. The motto for dealing with Richie seems to be “out of sight, out of mind.”
When Park’s mom sees Eleanor and her mother in the grocery store, shopping for a large family on a shoestring budget, Park’s mom realizes that even though she has been prejudiced against Eleanor for her unusual appearance, she and Eleanor actually have a lot in common. Park’s mom grew up in a very poor and very large family in Korea, and she knows the kind of hardships that this life produces. By seeing Eleanor in context, Park’s mom sees a version of herself, and she is finally able to see beyond the surface and accept Eleanor for who she is. When Park’s mom allows herself to get to know Eleanor, she sees that they have faced similar challenges and that they have very similar values and strengths, even though these qualities come out in different ways on the surface. Park’s mom can finally see that Eleanor has inner depth, and she understands why Park is attracted to her.
Eleanor’s Christmas present to Park, a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, has resonances with their own relationship. The book is also about a troubled, angry, emotional teenager who feels like an outsider in his world. The Catcher in the Rye also foreshadows the journey that Eleanor and Park will take at the end of the novel, when Park helps Eleanor escape a desperate situation at home.