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.

Eileen – Man Booker Finalist

9781594206627_p0_v1_s192x300   Be prepared to feel down and grudgy as you start to read  Ottessa Moshfegh’s Man Booker Prize finalist Eileen.  Although the sentences flow, the words create an uneasy sensation – at times, I wanted to put the book down to take a shower or vacuum the rug.  At the end of the first chapter, Eileen warns the reader:  “In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.  This is the story of how I disappeared.”  This hopeful promise motivated my reading through the misery

As she begins to tell her story, Eileen looks back before her life-changing incident fifty years earlier the week before Christmas 1964.  Each long chapter is titled with the day, starting with Friday and climaxing on Christmas Eve.

Having left college to return home to nurse her ailing mother, Eileen finds herself now stuck with her alcoholic father, a retired policeman.  Her caring for him is minimal, no cooking or cleaning involved; she buys his liquor and ties his shoes.  They live in squalor and a haze of perpetual drunkenness.  In her job as a secretary at a correctional facility for boys, she fantasizes about one of the guards and imagines her father dying, leaving her free to move on.

By Monday, her examination of self is interrupted by a newcomer to the prison staff, Rebecca Saint John, a recent Harvard graduate. Beautiful and cheery, she is the antithesis of Eileen, yet they make a connection.  Suddenly, the mood shifts. Eileen now has a friend – and her father’s gun.

“And I felt in a way that just by knowing her, I was graduating out of my misery. I was making some progress.”

Throughout the laborious build-up,  as she reveals her inner demons and dreams of escape, Moshfegh has Eileen intermittently interrupting her own story, commenting as her older self. The narrative moves slowly until the climax, then takes on the frantic suspenseful pace of a murder mystery.  On Christmas Eve, the story takes an eerie turn.   Something bad and unexpected is about to happen, and it does.

Eileen confirms she has survived, now living a quiet life in New York City, but to tell how would spoil the story.

I understood author Jean Zimmerman’s assessment of the novel for NPR as “funny awful.”  I might add other adjectives: weird, bizarre, dark  – with strange shades of Capote and Hitchcock – but I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.



The Night Guest

Fiona McFarlane’s “The Night Guest” combines the fears of growing old with insights on watching loved ones diminish. With detailed descriptions, McFarlane transports the reader to New South Wales, Australia, as newly widowed Ruth battles her loneliness and oncoming dementia. The storyline turns into a thriller with the introduction of the formidable Frida and the lurking tiger in the house.

As Frida’s stalking of a seemingly helpless elder develops, McFarlane is careful to maintain the drama and the possibility that all will end well. It doesn’t. Her topic is timely as seniors strive to maintain their independence, sometimes fighting off increasing physical and mental decline. Those villains who would pounce on their vulnerability are everywhere. Placing Ruth’s sons in Hong Kong and New Zealand, McFarlane noted in an interview:
” I am interested in the ways in which older people are suffering from different forms of isolation, as families are becoming more geographically spread out.”

“The Night Guest” followed me from the book group in Edinburgh’s Waterstones to a display in a bookstore window in Oxford. When I finished, I was reminded of my mother’s susceptibility in her 93rd year, and wondered about my own in the future. “The Night Guest” is a thoughtful read with the flavor of mystery and a dramatic climax.


The Woman Upstairs

9780307596901_p0_v2_s260x420Focusing on a lifetime of regret and a glaring betrayal, Clare Messud spins a slow teasing tale in The Woman Upstairs.  As the story opens, the narrator has clearly survived whatever has made her so angry – and has become stronger for it – but Messud carefully avoids details, giving the surprise ending greater impact.

Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged third grade teacher, regrets her life, especially not having children and not having a career in art.  She fulfills Messud’s definition of the woman upstairs – the bland, nice girl, liked by everyone, loved by no one, who dutifully cared for her ailing mother, visits her lonely father, cheers her aging aunt with store-bought cakes, and treads the mill of unending boredom, realizing that while waiting for her real life to begin, she may have missed it.  She expresses her art through dioramas – dollhouse sized rooms she plans to create to replicate the lives of famous women authors.  The Ibsen reference (Nora, dollhouse) is no accident.

Only the beginning of Emily Dickinson’s room has evolved when Nora’s lonely life intersects with a new family.  The Shahids are in Cambridge for a year, and eight year-old Reza appears in Nora’s third grade class in his European sandals, long curly hair, and Parisian accent.  His father, Skandar, teaches at Harvard and his mother, Sirena, is a multimedia artist who creates feminist performance art.  Messud creates an incident for Nora to meet Sirena – the school bully attacks charming Reza.  Instantly, the two women make a connection that evolves into sharing studio space – a small corner for Nora’s dollhouse rooms, the rest for Sirena’s installation of Wonderland, a life-sized reproduction of Lewis Carroll’s story that allows viewers to participate in the art and be videotaped as they succumb to their imaginations.

As the story evolves, Nora seems to experience a reawakening and imagines she has become part of the Shahid family.  Her fantasies include becoming a second mother to Reza, a lover to Skandar, and a confidante and fellow artist to her new best friend, Sirena.  Nora readily babysits for Reza. sews for Sirena, listens to Skandar’s philosophizing,  but Messud is careful to keep the reader wondering – are Nora’s feelings being reciprocated by the Shahids or is she merely being tolerated  – or maybe even used?

Eventually, the Shahids return to Paris, but Nora keeps her torch burning for them.  Despite their sparse communication, she follows them on google searches, noting when Skandar is promoted and Sirena has new sponsors for her art.  At the age of 42, Nora decides to take a year off from teaching to concentrate on her own art and to travel.  Of course, she visits the Shahids who are polite but estranged dinner hosts.  On one of her last days in Paris, Nora finds an obscure exhibition of Sirena’s videotapes of the Wonderland exhibit –  from both Parisian viewers and those made in their shared studio.

The pacing of the novel is strangely addictive; I kept turning pages – not necessarily to find out what had triggered Nora’s anger – that was easy to forget as Nora’s lonely existence blossomed and then wilted again.  Messud’s language captured smoldering moments:

“This is what’s most surprising about life, really: the most enormous things – sometimes fatal things – occur in the flicker of an eye…”

“…and I didn’t particularly want anyone to tell me it was good….I just wanted to be got, and I didn’t trust that I would be.”

Of course, when the ending comes and you discover the cause of Nora’s anger, you will be shocked.  Messud crafts her ending for speculation: will Nora be so strengthened by her anger that the satisfying possibilities of her life will now come, or will she revert to her old isolation in her fury?  I prefer to think she will channel her lessons learned to finally begin her life.

A captivating but slow revelation of the “good girl” – not the “gone girl.”