This is a story about a 7th-grade girl (Bridge), her two best girlfriends (Emily and Tab), and her new friend-who-is-a-boy, Sherm. Beyond that description, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about. It’s a record of Bridge’s experiences with school, with her friends, and with her family, interspersed with letters from Sherm to his grandfather, and chapters written in second person by an unknown protagonist who lives in Bridge’s universe but who is perhaps a bit older, and who is obviously unhappy about something…but what?
It’s an odd little book. If you read it purely on the surface, you may get frustrated with it as “story.” It meanders. It wanders from Bridge’s friendships and day-to-day experiences to Sherm’s grandfather’s desertion to the unknown older teenager taking her “day-cation” from school to ponder recent events, giving equal weight to all of them, and if you are looking at it just as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, at first you feel a bit unmoored. Is there a story here? Is there a point at which the author means you to arrive? You might feel a little impatient with it and want to say Hey, what’s the plot here? even when you are halfway through the book.
But if you read this book more philosophically, you see that everyone in it is struggling with their sense of self, and not in the way many people portray that, where something happens and the character’s personality magically and immediately solidifies around that event. This book is really dealing with life as it is lived, where people have small realizations and epiphanies as they go along, most of the time not even realizing until afterwards that something has changed; and there are no big “Aha!” moments, there are just shifts in perspective that gradually (perhaps glacially) take you further towards a realization of who you are, or want to be, or can afford to be.
So while this book is definitely written for a middle school audience—not angsty teenagers but really for 6th and 7th-graders—I am wondering if they are seeing in it what I, as an adult, am seeing in it? Maybe I am being condescending, though—maybe they see it and get it much more easily and clearly than I do! Sometimes our expectations of writing and story interfere with our appreciation of something new or different in structure or feeling, and the middle-schoolers won’t have the predispositions that I do.
I ended up really appreciating this book. You could describe it as a slice of life story, but it’s more than that. Not a lot more, but the distance beyond is what’s important about it. It’s truly “coming of age,” but not with the idea that coming of age has some magic arrival point at which you are finally you. Instead, it shows that even grandfathers are still groping for identity after decades of feeling like they were who they were forever. A significant message in a seemingly innocuous little package.
Every once in a while, I like to pick up something that is being lauded as a bestseller, just to check in with what’s popular at the moment. Honestly, I much prefer to discover the dark horses on the library shelf than to go with the crowd onto the holds list; but several of my friends had bookmarked Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine as “to read” on Goodreads, so I decided to do likewise.
Many times, I am discouraged by my foray into popular fiction. I didn’t enjoy The Girl on the Train; wasn’t a fan of the Christian Grey saga; and am less engaged with each subsequent Dan Brown tome that emerges. So I never approach bestsellers with either faith or anticipation. But this time I wasn’t disappointed.
My initial reaction to the first third of this book (despite some clues in the opening pages that would have led me elsewhere had I been paying sufficient attention) was that it reminded me of The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. Socially awkward protagonist with no friends, wedded to routine, on whom a random suggestion acts as a catalyst to start changing things up, check. Protagonist meets someone completely outside their wheelhouse and makes an unexpected connection, check. But that’s not quite how this book ended up going. The two books share a sense of humor, and their protagonists share the quality of being literal and inept at human relations and thus unintentionally funny (and sometimes pathetic) as they attempt to navigate their way through life. But the reasons behind their similar states are different, as are the resolutions.
There are lots of books out there (fiction and nonfiction) about various kinds of mental health issues. Not many of them, however, address the situation of profound loneliness as either a cause or an outcome. Eleanor believes that she is completely self-sufficient–after all, all of her physical needs are being met, and in all her years in the foster care system, she didn’t get a chance to indulge any emotional needs, or even recognize that she had any. But when she has two chance encounters that change her focus, these events and the people connected with them worm their way into her formerly solitary existence and begin to show her that she had very little idea what a full life could be like.
Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and her metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. This is a book about Eleanor, and Gail Honeyman doesn’t fall into the trap of leading her out of her unhappiness by making her fall in love. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this is the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence.
I have encountered only a few books that, the minute I turned the last page, I wanted to go back and re-read to see what I missed or to re-experience the emotions brought forth by the story. This was one of them.
Are you a person who enjoys reading about reading? Who loves it when a book has an author as its character, is set in a bookstore or a library, or involves you in some magical aspect of story? If so, here is an eclectic annotated list for you. Some are written for teens, some appear in sci fi or mystery, and some in general adult fiction, but all are great reads for readers:
The Telling, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The planet Aka used to be a backward, rural, but culturally rich world. But once it came into contact with the Hainish civilization, abrupt changes were made by its ruling faction to transform it into a technologically advanced model society. Sutty, an official observer from Earth, has been dispatched to see if the disconnect has been too great. She learns of a group of outcasts living in the back country who still believe in the old ways and practice a lost religion called the Telling, and seeks them out, at some personal risk to both herself and them, to discover what this society is missing. (Science Fiction)
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This is the story of foster child Liesel Meminger, who is living just outside of Munich during World War II. Liesel steals books (thus the name) and–once she learns to read–shares them with her stepfather and also with the Jewish man hiding in their basement. The novel is narrated by Death. The language, the imagery, the story, the unusual point of view are all stellar. I’m not sure why this was pigeon-holed as a teen book, because it’s a universally appealing story. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Thirteenth Tale,
by Diane Satterfield
Biographer Margaret Lea lives above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. One day she receives a letter from one of Britain’s premier novelists. Vida Winter is gravely ill, and wants to tell her life story before it’s too late, and she has selected Margaret to do so. Margaret is puzzled and intrigued (she has never met the author, nor has she read her novels), and agrees to meet with her. Winter finally shares the dark family secrets she has long kept hidden, and Margaret becomes immersed in her story, which is a true gothic tale complete with a madwoman hidden in the attic, illegitimate children, and some ghosts. (Adult Fiction)
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly
David’s mother has died, and the 12-year-old has only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him, leading him through a magical gateway to a series of familiar, yet slightly skewed versions of classic fairy tales and aiding him to come to terms with his loss and his new life. (Adult Fiction or sometimes shelved as Young Adult)
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son in post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona, falls in love with a book, only to discover that someone is systematically destroying all other works by this author. A combination of detective story, fantasy, and gothic horror. (Adult Fiction)
The Eyre Affair,
by Jasper Fforde
In an alternate-history version of London in 1985, Special Operative Thursday Next is tasked by the Special Operations Network with preventing the kidnapping of literary characters from books. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of the book by that name, Thursday is determined to prevent the trauma experienced by its fond readers. (If you like this one, there are many more in the series.) (Adult Mystery)
Inkheart (plus sequels Inkspell, Inkdeath),
by Cornelia Funke
Meggie’s father, who repairs and binds books for a living, has an unusual gift that became a curse in their lives: He can “read” characters out of books. But when he is reading a book to young Meggie, some characters escape into their world and her mother gets sucked into the story! Now it’s time for Mo and Meggie to change the course of that story, send the book’s evil ruler back into his book and maybe retrieve the person dear to them both…. (Children’s Fiction)
Not as directly reader-related, but with twisted versions of fairy tales interspersed throughout its exciting contents is Cornelia Funke’s “Mirrorworld” series that starts with the book Reckless. Again, this series was billed and sold as a series for children and teens, but it’s really a powerful and sophisticated fantasy about an alternate world that will appeal to all ages. There are three books, and more to come, according to Cornelia! (usually shelved as Young Adult Fiction, but…)
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
The historical saga of how a book–the Sarajevo Haggadah–came to be, and its storied history down through five centuries, written from the point of view of a curmudgeonly rare book conservator. Inspired by a true story, and beautifully written. (Adult Fiction)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Clay Jannon, a website designer who has lost his job as a result of the dot-com disaster, finds part-time employment on the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore. But soon the strange goings-on at the store have Clay and his friends speculating about how the place stays in business; there are plenty of customers, but none of them ever seems to buy anything, and Clay is forbidden from opening any of the dusty manuscripts they periodically arrive to peruse. But when he gets bored and curious… (Adult Fiction)
Ink and Bone,
by Rachel Caine
This series is set in an alternate world, in which the Great Library at Alexandria never burned down. Centuries later, having achieved a status not unlike the Vatican in contemporary life, the Great Library and its rulers control the flow of knowledge to the masses. Paradoxically, although anyone can order up any of the greatest works of history from the library (via alchemy), personal ownership of books is forbidden. Jess Brightwell’s family are black market book dealers, but Jess decides he wants to play it straight by entering the service of the Library. Or does he? The sequels are Paper and Fire, and Ash and Quill. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Fikry, the owner of Island Books on Alice Island (think Martha’s Vineyard) is in a bad way: His beloved wife has just died, sales are dismal, and someone has just stolen his rare edition of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. But then an unexpected discovery—an important “package” abandoned in his bookstore—changes his perspective on everything. (Adult Fiction)
There are probably dozens more books about books, reading, and writing; when I discover them, I’ll share!