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.


If You Could Do It Over – The Nobodies Album

If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would that be? Would you right a wrong, or selfishly target something to make yourself feel or look better?

In the beginning of her book, The Nobodies Album, Carolyn Parkhurst warns you

“…better to keep the focus on yourself and leave the others to sort themselves out…”

Octavia Frost is a well-known author who has decided to create an addendum for each ending of her books. She’s rewritten the end of each story and compiled them into a new book – The Nobodies Album – named after a game she and her son played when he was a child – the stories that only exist in the imagination.

In delivering her manuscript to her publisher, she notices the news ticker across Times Square, announcing that her now rock star son is accused of brutally murdering his girlfriend. She leaves immediately for San Francisco to be near her son, whom she hasn’t talked to in four years.

And so the mystery story begins. Who killed Bettina (the girlfriend)? Did her son really do it? Why haven’t mother and son talked in so long? What did he read in her published book that turned him away from her? How did her husband and daughter die?

Parkhurst cleverly keeps you in suspense, and teases you by injecting the last chapters and rewrites of Octavia Frost’s novels just when cliffhanger clues might help solve the murder. You’ll be tempted to skip back to the action, but then you’d miss those peeks into Octavia’s subconscious. The rewrites offer endings with hope, but the originals speak to her regrets.

Could she rewrite her life along with the endings? Can she be there for her son or will she coldly use him as material for her next book?

Halfway through the book, it hit me– this is Mary Tyler Moore in Judith Guest’s Ordinary People.

Despite all the angst, emotional upheaval and selfish moments, Parkhurst delivers a good detective story. You might guess whodunnit – but by that time it will seem irrelevant.

Not an easy story to read, The Nobodies Album thankfully has an ending that does not need rewriting.

The Lake Shore Limited

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…

But each player can only guess what the other actors are thinking as they say their lines.   In The Lake Shore Limited, Sue Miller lets us in.

Using a play about a train wreck triggered by terrorists, Miller reveals the play within a play – the lives of the actor, playwright, and audience reflected in the script.   The story opens with the play and keeps returning to it as the real lives of the characters unfold.

At the preview performance of  “The Lake Shore Limited” all the key characters are present: Billy, the playwright, faced with her ambivalence after her lover, Gus, died in a 9/11 plane crash; Leslie, Gus’s sister, struggling with her own identity; Rafe, the lead actor in Billy’s play, whose wife is dieing of ALS; and Sam, introduced to Billy by Leslie as a possible love interest.  What seems more than a little Shakespearean, the theme focuses on how hard it is to figure out what really is important in their lives, and the sacrifices  made to get to that realization.  Throughout, Miller has a knack for delivering dialogue and action that are familiar.

Scenes from 9/11 sneak in, with the desperation of the survivors having to live on and remember. But Miller manages to avoid the trite yet miserable storyline that has been retold before, and dives down another level to explore what happens when wishes, no matter how horrible, come true. The lead in the play wonders if the disaster has actually brought him a reprieve – a feeling echoed in the real lives of the characters in the novel.  As he works through his guilt, betrayal, and epiphany in the play- so do Billy, Sam, Rafe, and Leslie in their lives.

Miller’s attention to detail as she sketches out each one’s inner turmoil,  connection to each other, and worry about how actions are received and perceived is sometimes more than you need.  At times, the story seems to go on forever.  But Miller cleanly connects the dots, and maintains interest with the novel’s organization – flipping back and forth among the voices.   It’s like watching a play, with an interview of each actor backstage, explaining  the motivation – Method acting for real life.

“All’s well that ends well;”  the story finally lands in a happy ending, and the dog has a great role.