I am a huge fan of quirky characters, but when they fly by the eccentric train station heading full speed to weird I start applying the reading brakes. Today’s reviews are about two women who are quirky and then some. In one case it worked beautifully and led to a novel I loved. In the other, it was almost enough to overshadow a good book.
As mentioned, I always enjoy an eccentric protagonist and if they’re somewhat unlikable, even better. Eleanor Oliphant fits this profile to a tee. When Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine begins it is almost immediately clear that Eleanor is a bit off. Or from one hundred years ago. Or an alien. She is terribly smart with a well-developed, if somewhat old-fashioned vocabulary, but she has no friends and doesn’t seem to want any. She exists quietly in her own world in Glasgow, working as a finance clerk for a small company. But is that really all there is to Eleanor Oliphant?
It isn’t until she and a male colleague, Raymond, witness an elderly man fall down across the street that the cracks begin to appear in Eleanor’s façade. Initially, she is disinclined to help, believing the man to be drunk, but Raymond insists and soon they find themselves pulled into the orbit of Mr. Thom and his family. At the same time, she has finally found a man she thinks might be worth the effort, except he’s a musician and has no idea who she is. Now Eleanor finds herself interacting with people with varying degrees of success. Confusing, messy, contradictory people. For a woman who has managed to keep her adult life as small and contained as possible, whose only regular personal contact is with her mother, who seems to be in prison and calls every Wednesday night, it is overwhelming. But it also might be a bit nice.
One of the things I admire most about certain writers is their ability to believably maintain a narrator’s tone throughout a novel. Honeyman does this admirably with Eleanor, never missing the perfect intonation or phrasing to reiterate that this is a woman who perceives the world in the most literal way. There is no such thing as whimsy, guile or filter to her. She clearly states that she drinks two bottles of vodka a weekend, carefully measured out to keep her perfectly drunk but without a hangover, until Monday morning when she goes back to work. She is pragmatic in all things and in making her so, Honeyman controls the narrative enough that Eleanor’s story, Eleanor’s life, is revealed slowly in tiny increments and with the same flat affect she uses to describe her job. Only it’s not small, it’s big.
Throughout Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Honeyman maintains the delicate balance between sorrow and humor. She does so in a way that, even as we laugh at Eleanor’s oddness, we are touched by her stolid acceptance of loneliness. The novel glitters with the many facets of life and is a gentle, moving reminder of all we don’t know about the people around us. It aches: with sadness, laughter, and happiness.
Initially in The Little Clan, Ava has everything to recommend her—she was an English major in school, dreams of being an author, and now works as a librarian for a private social club in Manhattan where most of the members were around during the Roosevelt administration. She loves the 19th century and Sherlock Holmes. All of that works for me, but the fact that she turns her personal preferences into an ethos that impacts her entire life feels a bit too twee. What do I mean? She won’t use or wear most modern-day items: she writes on paper with a quill pen, wear silk stockings with garters, carries a pocket watch, has no electric appliances, and uses candlelight. Cue the eye-roll. You don’t need to go that far to indicate a character enamored of the past.
Ava’s life would seem to be staid, with no opportunity for drama, but her old college friend, Stephanie, comes back into her life after going to Europe to work as a model (escort). Stephanie is everything Ava is not—hip, cool, and beautiful. Men adore her and while the details are never clear, they also seem to provide for her lavish lifestyle. When Stephanie sees Ava’s setup she quickly decides it is what’s needed to bring them both into the limelight where they belong. Except Ava doesn’t care about the limelight. She cares about books so, because the plan is to turn dusty, unused space at the hotel into a literary salon, she’s all in. But, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go that way.
The Little Clan falls neatly into ‘new adult’ territory by mining the complicated post-college years when life has more questions than answers. Ava’s sense of confusion about almost every aspect of her life reads realistically and goes some way to counterbalance her determination to be an anachronism. Author Iris Cohen writes well of loneliness and self-doubt, infusing both with the kind of wry humor I always enjoy. Where the novel falters is in Ava and Stephanie’s friendship. It’s the center of the novel, but is so one-sided it’s hard to fathom, making accepting the novel as a whole harder. The book was good, but Cohen’s writing was great and I look forward to what she does next.
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