Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
I love it so much when a book lives up to its promise. For me, the novel that is a bestseller and a satisfying read is only too rare, but Eleanor Oliphant succeeds. The debut novel by Gail Honeyman (a fellow Lucy Cavendish shortlistee – no pressure!) follows the titular character. I came to Eleanor not really knowing what to expect apart that it was a book about loneliness. Eleanor is rather odd but you work out pretty quickly that most of her problems stem from her childhood. Once a week Mummy calls, from an undisclosed location. As a reader you know what Eleanor knows which is that Mummy did something bad and that wherever she is, she can’t ever leave. It doesn’t stop her from getting in touch once a week to taunt her daughter though, and as much as Eleanor dreads the calls, she cannot let go of these weekly interactions.
At work she just gets on with the same job she’s had for nine years and avoids social interactions with her colleagues as much as possible. It’s only the arrival of new IT guy, Raymond, that shakes her out of her faithful routine. An accident results in her being forced into new and unusual situations, and Eleanor comes to believe that perhaps she does need to be more open to new experiences.
I so enjoyed this book that I found myself rationing it out, not wanting it to end. This is mainly because Eleanor is such a great character. Seeing a familiar world through eyes who view everything slightly differently is so refreshing. She is an open narrator, letting the reader see every flaw (which, thanks to Mummy’s influence, she is constantly aware of). She is also highly aware of the flaws of others, criticising Raymond’s dress sense and table manners which fall far lower than Mummy’s expectations. There is a particular scene on a busy bus which made me cackle (partly because in that moment I knew exactly where she was coming from). She describes her usual game of selecting the best person to sit next to. Then this happens:
…he walked straight past me and sat on the other side of the bus, next to a short, rough-looking man in a sports jacket. I couldn’t believe it! Two people got on at the next stop – one went upstairs, the other, once again, eschewed the spare seat next to me and walked towards the back of the bus, where, I noticed when I turned around to look, she seated herself next to a man with no socks on. His bare ankles looked distressingly white above his oxblood leather brogues, which he had teamed with green jogging bottoms. A madman.
This is a character led novel, but there is also the mystery of what happened to Eleanor as a child. It is always clear that her present state of mind is a direct consequence of abuse. Gradually Honeyman reveals details as Eleanor realises that to move forward she must revisit her past. This is a dark tale at times, but humour is never far away and I found it a hopeful narrative. Eleanor is one of those characters who will stay with you for a long time after you’ve turned the last page.
This story grabs the reader from the first chapter: the sinking of a steamboat on the Ohio River in 1838, based on a real life tragedy. May survives by swimming a mile or more with a little girl in tow; other passengers lose their lives and this terrifying incident is brilliantly brought to life. A seamstress, May has made her living by travelling with her cousin who is an actress. When her cousin is offered a new career as a public speaker by a wealthy abolitionist, Mrs Howard, May finds herself out of work and it is a chance meeting with another of the steamboat survivors that leads her to the Floating Theatre.
May is a great character, odd but not overly so. She cannot lie without difficulty; despite working in theatres for years she has never watched a play until Hugo, the captain of the Floating Theatre, makes her; she has a very fixed moral compass. I loved seeing how she changes over the course of the book. The theatre travels along the river, stopping at towns in the slave-owning south, and the free north, and Mrs Howard soon enlists May to help ferry runaways across to safety. This involves a lot of scheming and lying as May doesn’t know who she can trust and is not good at deception.
I really did get swept away by this story. Life on the boat is so vivid I could picture all of the characters and even those who barely speak are well-drawn. As a story about slavery recounted by a white character, Conway does well to examine attitudes through May’s experiences. She finds that her new friends are disappointingly reticent to become involved in the slavery debate. Even though they all claim to despise its existence, they’d prefer to turn away from the issue completely. As one character says to May, ‘…it’s hard to be on the wrong side of the law. Makes a fellow uncomfortable.’
Towards the end there were a few too many ‘bad omens’ for my liking – I could already guess that disaster was around the corner without it being quite so heavily hinted at (I don’t need a drowned dog to point out that with only a few chapters to go something is bound to go wrong). Other than that, this was a novel which lived up to my high expectations.
Thanks to Readers First for the free review copy.
How do you carry on, when you lose someone you love? Big Billy Brennan has suffered the greatest tragedy a parent can know – he has just lost his son. His family is reeling, and his marriage is a partnership in name alone. Billy is also obese: at nearly 30 stone, he can barely walk down the street without breaking a sweat. In his small Irish town, he can’t escape his notoriety.
So Billy decides to take on the two things weighing him down – his grief, and his fat – and in doing so he’s going to try to stop the terrible plague of suicide that is haunting the youth of Ireland.
Tackling the subject of suicide sensitively is so important, and Rohan does this incredibly well. Michael Brennan is just present enough and we don’t get fed simple reasons for his suicide. Instead, he seemed happy. About to apply to uni, star of the local football team and popular. His parents don’t understand what could possibly have made their eldest son go to such lengths, and Billy in particular blames himself.
The weight issue was tended to take over, though it was linked with Michael’s death. Billy is a mess physically and emotionally, blaming his own father for showing little interest in him. When he suddenly decides that he’s going to lose half his body weight for charity, it seems a little out of character but I went with it. His struggle to give up the vast portions of fast food, and the scenes where he struggled to walk a few laps of his own house, were poignant and I felt disappointed in Billy when he fell victim to temptation. I could feel the weight of the pressure that he piled upon himself by publicising his sponsored weight loss so widely.
I struggled a little more with the Brennans as a family. Billy seems to be set apart from everyone: his wife, his kids, his sister, his parents. As much as I appreciated the challenge of the weight loss more when he was up against it, I wondered at his wife’s refusal to help. She carried on stocking the fridge with chocolate and unhealthy snacks, barely commented when Billy moved out of their bedroom into their dead son’s (or when he moved back in). Tricia herself became little more than a foil to Billy’s plans and her constant criticism began to irritate me. They never had proper rows either, just little sniping comments that began to wear me out as much as they did Billy.
Although the subject was treated sensitively, I felt that it was too tentatively explored and I wanted more impact. All in all, this was a decent story but not perfect and the ending fizzled out with no concrete conclusion.
I received a copy of this novel from Readers First in exchange for an impartial review.
The fourth book in Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, Casting Off continues where the last book left off. Originally, this was the final book in the series, the fifth only being published eighteen years later. I think that if I was reading this as the last book then I may have had more questions by the end (mainly relating to Louise and Villy), but I think that the other storylines were resolved satisfactorily.
Sometimes you can pick up a book in the middle of a series and read it as a standalone. I doubt that Casting Off would work if you hadn’t read the previous novels though. The family is too vast and so much has happened to them that, in spite of the potted history and family tree at the beginning, I don’t think a casual reader would find it enjoyable. As part of the series though I think this novel did most of what I wanted to.
We pick back up in July 1945. Rupert has just returned from France, years after everyone thought he was dead and months after he could have. Clary, who kept the faith that he was alive, feels that he abandoned them, and his wife Zoe feels guilt over the affair that she had while Rupert was missing (little knowing that the reason he stayed away so long was that he found love himself, in France). Older brother Edward finally comes clean to his wife Villy, and tells her about his mistress.
The daughters are now grown up and provide the main focus of the novel: Louise, still stuck in her loveless marriage; Polly still struggling to get over unrequited love for Archie, Rupert;s good friend; and Clary, embarking upon her own first love affair.
There is so much going on that it is a wonder that Howard manages to corral all of her characters into a format that makes sense. Having the book split into different sections (‘The Girls’, ‘The Wives’) makes it easier to keep a handle on whose point of view we’re looking from, though sometimes I found myself reading several paragraphs without knowing quite which character I was inhabiting which felt a little odd. Also, sometimes as a reader you want to follow a character for longer which isn’t possible with such a huge cast. I found that ‘The Outsiders’ sections were of less interest (apart from Sid – big cheer for her and Rachel finally sorting themselves out!). I’ve never cared much about Miss Milliment and I’d be happy enough if Villy’s sister Jessica and her whole family vanished. As much as I found Raymond’s storyline touching, it added nothing to the piece as a whole and I’d have much preferred Howard to use that space to go back to Louise and her strange marriage to Michael (and the hideous mother in law who was sadly quite quiet in this novel).
Verdict: definitely one for the fans. It ties up most of the ends but I’m glad there’s another book to go
Once upon a time (well, a month or so ago) I was determined to read all of this year’s Baileys shortlisted books before the winner was announced. With five days to go and three of the novels not yet read that is most definitely not going to happen. My failure is tempered by the knowledge that I have had to give over precious reading time to writing – a new novel which I am obsessed with. Nevertheless I had already reserved a couple of the Baileys books from the library so they will not go unread. Rose Tremain’s book attracted me first due to its relative brevity (as well as being due back to the library today).
Set in Switzerland and beginning in 1947 Gustav Perle grows up in a tiny flat in a small town. He lives with his mother, Emilie. His father, a hero says his mother, died when he was a baby. When new boy Anton moves to Gustav’s town, the boys quickly become friends. Anton is a talented pianist, a prodigy he tells Gustav. Emilie doesn’t like Anton visiting their small flat. Anton’s family are Jewish and Emilie tells Gustav that his father died trying to protect the Jews during the war. Tremain cleverly uses Anton’s constantly supportive parents to contrast the indifference that Emilie shows to her son. When Emilie contracts pneumonia and has to be taken to hospital, Gustav is left alone with only a friendly neighbour to help. She tells him he must wash the sheets where his mother wet the bed, to weak to get to the bathroom, and there is a heart-breaking scene where he goes down to the laundry but is too little to reach the light switch and has to leave the sheets there until the next day.
The middle part of the book takes place before Gustav’s birth, the story of how his parents met. This is a bleak novel and so I wasn’t expecting a happy tale, but in some ways I could understand why Emilie had turned out the way she did once I knew what she’d already been through (though she is never portrayed as likeable, rather slightly calculating and self-pitying). The real circumstances around her husband’s death were even more tragic than imagined, though I felt that here the rather Swiss restraint that Tremain employs could have been relaxed. Having become involved with Erich’s predicament I found that his actual death was rather anticlimactic. I don’t think I needed it to be more dramatic in terms of what happens, only I think I wanted more detail. I wanted to be there, and to know his thoughts, rather than finding out about it later, if that makes sense.
This is the sort of novel which is quietly excellent. The prose is perfect and never overwrought. I found the dialogue a little rigid but it fit the style of the novel. Both Gustav and Anton are very restrained and, certainly with Anton, there is the suggestion that if they let go too much then all will be lost. I am full of admiration for this book, but I never quite fell in love with it.
Set in Bavaria, Germany, The Women of the Castle follows three women as they come to terms with the end of World War II and the arrival of the Russians and Americans. I do love historical fiction and I haven’t read a huge number of novels set in post-war Germany (The Reader is the only novel that springs to my mind). The premise, seeing three very different women thrown together in a dilapidated castle, intrigued me.
Marianne von Lingenfels’ husband was a Nazi resistor. The castle is his family legacy and so she returns there after his execution for a plot to assassinate Hitler. She is the matriarch of the strange family that is formed after she goes in search of other resistance widows. Benita is the beautiful widow of Marianne’s childhood friend, Connie. Less principled that Marianne, she blames her husband for abandoning her. Rescued from sexual slavery, Marianne hopes that they will become allies, while Benita is not sure that she believes in Marianne’s high ideals. A third woman, Ania, is found in a labour camp and brought to the castle, but perhaps isn’t quite who she seems.
This is a novel that hops around in time, beginning with a prologue in 1938 before jumping ahead to 1945. There are other jumps – filling in the gaps in Benita and Ania’s pasts for example, then moving forward again to 1950. At times I did struggle a little, and if each chapter hadn’t been signposted with dates and location (the castle is, disappointingly, only a small part of the story) then I would have been lost. I did start to wish that Shattuck had concentrated on a story within the castle timeline as there was lots there that was left unexplored. In some ways, as this is a book written around the author’s own family history, and following years of research, I wondered if she had felt constrained to tell a certain story.
The blurb on the jacket cover promises that Benita will begin a clandestine relationship, and that Ania is trying to conceal a complicated role in the Nazi regime. I thought that these would be key moments, exploding Marianne’s dreams, but in reality by the time these revelations come they seem to lack the danger that they would have had if the women had all been together at the castle. When Marianne feels betrayed she just walks away and there is no real consequence (actually, perhaps for Benita there is, but I feel that her actions are driven by complex factors which could have done with more scrutiny).
I thought that this was a well written novel, examining difficult situations within a complex war, and Shattuck does well to make the history enjoyable to read. I just wish that, with the ingredients she had at her disposal, she’d written a story that examined the relationships between the women more closely.
Thanks to Readers First for this review copy in exchange for an impartial review.
1930s New York – a glamorous city where anyone can make anything of themselves if they have the ambition. Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, is New York born and bred. Her roommate and good friend, Evie Ross, is from a more well to do Midwest family. On New Year’s Eve, 1937, they meet a man named Tinker Grey in a Greenwich Village nightclub, a chance encounter that triggers an event that will leave them all irreversibly changed.
This is a novel which relies heavily on the charm of its narrator, and in Katey Kontent, Towles pulls this off. If I had a time machine and could choose a decade and a place from the last century to visit for a day, 1930s New York would be high on my list. Jazz clubs, gin martinis, fashionable women and young men waiting for their trust funds to pay out. Katey is far more of an observer than a participator, but this makes her more attractive to the reader (or at least to this one). It is the people who Katey meets who direct her year, so much packed in that at times I forgot that only a few months had passed. She finds herself moving in circles far above what she is used to, but never quite lets herself be seduced by the money or the notoriety of others.
If I have a complaint about the novel it is that it meanders rather a lot. The will they/won’t they element is also quashed from the start, a prologue which pairs Katey with a yet unknown husband. At first I thought that the main storyline would be about the relationships between Katey, Evie and Tinker. This is set up nicely in the first few chapters, but Evie and Tinker were then missing for months at a time. A more interesting character was Anne Grandyn, introduced as Tinker’s godmother but turning out to exert far more influence on him than Katey first thinks. Towles writes women who belong quite firmly in their time but still have agency. Anne singles Katey out as a potential protégé early on, as evidenced in a scene at the Belmont racecourse, Anne pointing out the young fiancée of a silver -haired multi millionaire:
-You see that thirty-year-old blonde next to Jake? That’s his fiancée, Carrie Clapboard. Carrie moved all manner of heaven and earth to get into that chair. And soon she will happily oversee scullery maids and table settings and the reupholstering of antique chairs at three different houses; which is all well and good. But if I were your age, I wouldn’t be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie’s shoes – I’d be trying to figure out how to get into Jake’s.
Overall I feel there is slightly more style than substance to this book, but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless.