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.

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Mo Willems – When a Pig Meets an Elephant

Catching up with the New Yorker recently, I not only laughed out loud at Rivka Glachen’s profile of children’s author and illustrator Mo Willems – Funny Failures – but also connected to this children’s author’s wry outlook.  I needed to find his books.

A quick search showed ninety-eight of his titles in my local library system, so I returned to the article to note those highlighted in the five page article.  Two have won Caldecott Honors – Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (2004) and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (2005).  Another I added, just to meet the elephant and the pig in We Are in a Book.

Knuffle Bunny may remind you of the last time you lost something in the laundry; the pigeon is hilarious – what’s the first thing any child wants to do when told not to?  As for the elephant and the pig, I dare you not to say “BANANA” when you read their book.

Although Willems’ books are identified as Easy Readers, in the same vein as Eric Carle  or P.D. Eastman, his animals are funny in their anxiety and resilient in their failures – a lesson for adults as well as children.  Give yourself a laugh; find Mo Willems.

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My (not so) Perfect Life

9780812998269_p0_v5_s192x300Sophie Kinsella’s books always make me smile and no matter what the heroine endures, I know I am guaranteed a happy ending with the tall handsome – most of the time rich – hero. Her latest book – My (not so) Perfect Life – met my expectations -a frothy romance with a hint of wisdom.

Katie, a country English girl leaves the farm for a career in the big city, but London life is not as easy or glamorous as she envisioned. She lives in a small apartment with a web designer roommate who stores boxes of whey in the living room for a side business. Although she has a degree in design, her job at a marketing firm is confined to low level data input. After she gets fired, she returns to the farm to help her father and step- mother start a glamping business with glamorous yurts and homemade scones.

When her former Cruella-like boss arrives to vacation with her “perfect” family, Katie takes her revenge in a hilarious series of bespoke activities. Of course, the handsome hero arrives later and the action turns into an office politics nightmare.

Katie saves the day, reforms her boss, and, of course, gets the guy. Despite the antics and ridiculous plot twists, the book has a message – no one’s life is as good it may seem. An enjoyable and fast read, My (not so) Perfect Life will have you laughing and reaffirming life as an unending tale of possibilities – Bridget Jones style.

On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

9780544808249_p0_v2_s192x300  Elinor Lipman uses her witty banter to deliver a frothy and pleasurable read in her latest novel On Turpentine Lane.  The story revolves around an old house, recently purchased by Faith Frankel, a thirty-something whose boyfriend is walking across the country like Forest Gump.  Lipman’s strength lies in her characters as they meander through ridiculous situations, now and then offering zingers of truth about how people deal with life – through grudges, betrayals, romance – even murder.

An easy read, On Turpentine Lane has all the qualities of a romantic comedy, with a murder mystery mingled into the plot of a small town drama.  After Faith discovers a strange Polaroid in the attic, the local police inform her the former owner – a ninety year old not-dead-yet maven, who may have pushed two husbands down the steep cellar stairs, is living nearby in a nursing home.  As the investigation simmers, Faith’s father, an insurance salesman, has an epiphany and becomes a painter of Chagall imitations, with images of paying customers in replicas of the artist’s surreal work.  In the meantime, Faith decides to stop financing Stuart (Forest Gump) and connect with her handsome colleague, Nick Franconi,  who shares her work space in the development office of a private children’s school.  Nick moves into the Turpentine Lane house, and when Stuart runs out of money and returns, Faith conveniently connects him to Nick’s former girlfriend.

Although the comedic force follows a sitcom formula,  Lipman’s undercurrent grounds the story with perfectly aimed asides, driving the action fast and tight.  All pieces and characters neatly connect and the murder mystery is solved.  Life may be hilarious in a Lipman drama, but it always has an element of truth connecting the reader to something relatable and real.

I’ve enjoyed many of Lipman’s stories.  My favorite may always be her essay “The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted.”

Related Reviews:

Eleanor Lipman: Fiction and Nonfiction

The Family Man

Today Will Be Different

9780316467063_p0_v2_s192x300    No matter how miserable or crazy your life might be, Maria Semple manages to make her characters’ problems worse, and in Today Will Be Different – more poignant.  Eleanor Flood, a quirky graphic artist married to a serious hand surgeon, battles her past and struggles with her present. Of course, she wins, as do all Semple’s idiosyncratic heroines.

The story unfolds in one day, packed with more trouble and good intentions than most of us have in a year. The theme, however rings true: how many of us wake up each morning determined to turn over a new leaf and reform our ways. Despite the one day format, Semple delivers Eleanor’s backstory and reveals her past demons through her interaction with other characters. As she tracks down her husband who is missing from his office, Eleanor has a series of missteps.  She sabotages the opening of an art exhibit, steals a set of keys from a parent at her son’s school, loses her contract for an unfinished graphic novel based on her childhood, and more.  Sample was the screenwriter for several successful television series, and she packs a season’s episodes in this book.

For fans of Where’d You Go Bernadette?, this story is also set in Seattle.  Those blackberry bushes reappear, Eleanor’s son Timby attends the infamous Galer Street School, and Semple can’t resist a few disparaging remarks about Amazon “squids.”

Although the plot jumps around and takes a while to get settled into the story,  this latest Semple offering will have you laughing, nodding in agreement at her pithy views on life, and hopeful – maybe life will be different – tomorrow.