Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

9780735220683_p0_v1_s192x300 Eleanor Oliphant is a survivor with a secret past and her lonely life is difficult until an act of kindness changes everything.  In her debut novel Gail Honeyman creates a thirty year old woman both pitied and ridiculed for her awkward social interactions as an adult.

Despite her attempts to fit in, she remains an outsider – that slightly odd person who rarely says a word, works all week, and sadly returns to a bare apartment after a hard day’s work at the office, spending her lonely weekends drinking vodka and eating pizza, speaking to noone until Monday morning.  Her isolation has a reason but its effect has stolen her ability  to understand what is appropriate behaviour in the world.

When she stops to help an older man who trips and drops his groceries, she meets Raymond, a fellow worker.  The follow-up visits to the hospital begin a circle of friendship with the older man, his family, and especially Raymond, but Honeyman cleverly inserts an undercurrent of yearning for Eleanor – a plan to marry a rock star.

As Eleanor prepares to meet the pop musician, changing her hairstyle and her clothes, she is also inadvertently building a relationship with Raymond.  Slowly, she ventures out to socialize in ways she has never dared before, and her life expands to new experiences.  Behind all this strange reawakening, Eleanor’s past and her debilitating conversations with her mother, who calls her once a week, intrude on her present.  Eventually, Eleanor has a nervous breakdown but with the support of her boss and Raymond, and a therapist, she manages to finally break away from the horrors of her past and live a full life.

Although Eleanor’s past is the secret finally revealed at the end of the story, her facial scars and her emotional fragility offer hints at the horrors she has faced as a child.  Growing up in foster care after escaping a deathly fire, Eleanor has blocked all memory of her childhood.  Carefully written to include compassion for Eleanor’s difficulty coping with adult life, the story is also full of humor as Eleanor tries to navigate the  world of office politics and a possible love affair – her comments and observations on everyday minutia are hilarious.

Honeyman’s profile of a young woman who not only survives a horrible past but also manages to finally become her own person, is a treat to read.  The book has been optioned for a movie.  Read it or listen to it first and enjoy its charm.

A Little Life

9780804172707_p0_v1_s192x300   The subject matter kept me away from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – who wants to dwell on self-mutilation and  child molestation? I started reading it one night and had just started to enjoy the camaraderie of the four principal characters when the first incident occurred.  Thankfully, I had no nightmares but the next day I could not wait to start reading again and did not stop until I finished.

New Yorker reviewer John Michaud called it “an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery.” You can read his review here for more details on the plot.

Curious about the author, I found several interviews and was surprised to learn Yanagihara has a day job as an editor for Condé Nast Traveler.  In an interview with Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek,Yanagihara reveals the philosophy driving her writing:  “All life is small…Life will end in death and unhappiness, but we do it anyway.”  In an interview with the National Book Award committee (the book was a 2015 finalist), Yanagihara describes her focus in writing the book:

“So much of this book, especially what it suggests about friendship—its possibilities and its limitations—grew out of conversations with my own best friend…  the realization that what you’re doing may not resolve anything—but that lack of resolution doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing…

The book does focus on friendship but the graphic descriptions of sexual violence make it hard to read.  Added to the trauma is Yanagihara’s mental construct of life – no happy endings here.   In an online interview, she noted, ” I didn’t do any research; Jude came to me fully formed, and writing his sections were always the easiest…One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better… that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover.”

I’m hoping to forget most of the story, but a few redeeming phrases about friendship I will remember:

  • “And he understood that friendship was a series of exchange of affections of time, sometimes of money, always of information.”
  • “…the utter comfort…of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was…”

Read the book, if you dare.


Aquarium by David Vann

9780802123527_p0_v3_s260x420Hard to read but compelling – in Aquarium David Vann tells the coming of age story of Caitlin, a sensitive and lonely twelve-year-old who lives in near poverty with her mother, a construction worker, in Seattle.  The story seems innocuous at first as Vann describes Caitlin’s after school visits to the Seattle Aquarium, and laces the pages with beautiful pictures of the fish Caitlin has befriended.  Throughout the story, Vann offers philosophical notes attached to this underwater world, and creates analogies to human action.

Caitlin befriends an elderly man who shares her love of fish, and they meet every day until he asks to meet her mother.   When his true identity is revealed, the plot turns to darkness and cruelty.  As much as Caitlin’s mother struggles in life – laboring at a job she hates, barely making enough money to pay the rent, angry at the world for her misery – she has shielded Caitlin from her past and the seething rage she keeps hidden.  But when this man reenters her life, her fury is released – along with scenes of horrible abuse and shocking inhumanity.  These descriptions are difficult to read.

Caitlin cautiously navigates around her mother’s anger, and even manipulates her into changes for the better.  At the same time, Caitlin is awakening to her own sexuality, and tells some of the story in flashback – reassuring the reader that she does survive.

Alaskan David Vann is a new author for me, and I requested this book from the library after reading a thoughtful and intriguing review from a fellow reviewer.  In researching some of Vann’s other books, I found references to more dark and dreary lives, and a penchant for family violence.  Aquarium, with its psychological heaviness, is described as “far more civilized” than his other work.  Perhaps with a young pre-teen protagonist, he has toned the wretchedness down a little – but not much.   Aquarium is a powerful and heart-wrenching story, but not for everyone.


Remember Me Like This

9781400062126_p0_v3_s260x420In a chilling examination of family interactions, Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This reveals the dislocation and eventual reinvention of lives trying to cope with the return of a young boy, four years after he had been kidnapped.  Although the plot is similar to Jacquelin Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean with the boy living within blocks of his family before he is discovered, Johnston’s victim, Justin Campbell, suffers abuse and terror as the prisoner of a man whose wealthy family lives nearby.  Justin’s grandfather discovers he knows the captor’s father.

Through the four years Justin Campbell has been missing, his family has fallen apart. The author alternates chapters with each family member’s inner thoughts. Justin’s father, Eric, struggles through his days teaching and starts an ongoing affair; his mother vascillates between despair and indifference; his younger brother, Griff, tentatively tries to navigate without his big brother.  After endless posters and years of searching, Justin is discovered at a nearby flea market and returned to his family.  Justin is older, taller, heavier, but being found is only the beginning of his ordeal and his family’s.

Johnston reveals Justin’s trauma but only subtly hints at the sordid details of his captivity.  More shocking are his seemingly normal experiences over those years, and his proximity to his family home.  When his captor is released on bail, the action escalates, as Eric and Justin’s grandfather plan to force the kidnapper to leave the country – or kill him.

Remember Me Like This examines the aftershock.  How does a family recover?  How does the victim heal? Is revenge an option?  Although the inner angst is sometimes overworked, the story has the pace of a thriller, and kept my attention.

First Day of the Rest of My Life

G.Y.L.T. B.I.T.L. (get your life together before it’s too late) might be one of the acronyms Madeline O’Shea uses with her clients as their life coach, but she finds it hard to follow her own advice.  Cathy Lamb’s The First Day of the Rest of My Life may sound like a fluffy narrative, but Lamb likes to let you get comfortable enjoying the quirky characters, and then wallop you with their terrifying secrets.

The O’Shea girls, Madeleine and Annie, have survived a horrific childhood with their abusive stepfather, to become privately dysfunctional but publicly normal. Annie is a vet, with military training in explosives, which she uses to rectify animal abuse; Madeleine is a popular motivational speaker and successful counselor, with a penchant for using her mother’s clichéd advice on her clients. A blackmail letter with pornographic pictures from their past threatens to reveal their terrible childhood abuse, and a reporter has uncovered new information not only about their childhood but also about the grandparents who raised them. Madeleine’s grandmother, a famous children’s author and illustrator, suffers from dementia; her ramblings hint at escape from Nazi Europe, with her picture stories of black swans a metaphor for wartime terrors that she has kept secret from her grandchildren.

Lamb offers some comic relief to the awful descriptions of child abuse, the vengeful courtroom scene, the assorted health attacks on the family – cancer, brain tumor, dementia, heart attack – with scenes from their mother’s pink lady beauty salon and exaggerated depictions of Madeleine’s clients, who throw glitter at her and dress her up in a Cats costume as part of their therapy. Madeleine’s advice is tough love, with blatant attacks on mostly women’s inability to stand up for themselves. Her magazine articles offer solutions, giving Lamb the opportunity to speak from her soapbox about society’s ills.

But be prepared to invest in some tissues, tears, gasps, and sighs. Before the predictable happy ending, the story vacillates between outright misery and familial loyalties. In a heavy-handed portrayal of emotions and history, Lamb focuses on two unbearable topics – child pornography and the Holocaust – one might have been enough.