Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Is Fine

oliphant-1Not great, just fine. Its strength is its protagonist, who I found just the right side of too contrived as a misfit, a figure of semi-comical pathos with a running undercurrent of desperation. That deeper, darker layer, however, for me was the novel’s weakness. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine purports to be a novel about loneliness: its blurb is from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and on the back is a review snippet calling it “an outstanding debut about loneliness.” But loneliness, it turns out, is a sideshow, or a side effect: it’s really a novel about trauma and recovery.

I’m not saying that a novel can’t be both of these things, but by the end of Eleanor Oliphant I was tired of the oh-so-gradual meting out of information about Eleanor’s tortured ( more or less literally) past and the carefully staged incremental movements towards her release from it. As a redemption narrative, the novel has its charming moments but is also relentlessly manipulative and, overall, predictable. And the thing is, I don’t think Eleanor needed all that background melodrama to be interesting, sad, and worth the effort. The novel reads like an Anne Tyler novel–it has many of Tyler’s characteristic themes and touches–but one written without Anne Tyler’s faith in the poignancy of the everyday, or her gift for emotional subtlety. I was engrossed in it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a slightly shoddy version of the better (different) book it could have been. Or maybe I just wanted to read a different book–Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, for instance.oliphant-2

That got me thinking, though: what are the really good novels about loneliness? Villette, of course! But what else? Scanning my index here, I’m reminded of Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heightsand of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night which is about two people who take a quiet stand against loneliness. Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner both seem likely candidates but single or solitary is not necessarily the same as lonely. What comes to mind for you when you think of novels about loneliness?

“Kiss Me, Katya”: Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare project, is basically a romantic comedy — the “indie” version, a bit quirky, a bit acidic, a bit sweet. In fact, it is both sweeter and more romantic than I expected: it has been decades since I read or saw The Taming of the Shrew, but at least in my memory, Shakespeare’s play is much more rambunctious and much harder to swallow, though that may be because the version I remember best is the Taylor / Burton one. I’ve also seen 10 Things I Hate About You more than once, and it too is harder-hitting than Vinegar Girl, though it is also more joyful.

Whether or not Vinegar Girl is an especially clever or original reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, it is enjoyable enough on its own terms, which are fairly undemanding. It moves us briskly through the story of its Katherine, a cranky, repressed older daughter whose life is divided between caring for her father (a dedicated but not terribly successful scientist) and her younger sister Bunny, and her job as a preschool teacher — an uncomfortable fit for her because, as she tells her father’s lab assistant Pyotr, she hates children.

She tells him this in disavowal of her father’s claim that she is “very domestic,” an unexpected (and misleading) endorsement that turns out to be part of his scheme to marry her to Pyotr, whose visa is about to expire. Though Pyotr has some of Petruchio’s domineer instincts, and a bad temper to match Kate’s, he is also the only person Kate has ever met who sees her, and who likes what he sees. Though at first Kate is insulted by the whole plan, which reflects the general opinion of everyone around her, including her father, that she will never find love on her own, she starts to appreciate Pyotr, and to see marriage to him as an opportunity to get away from a life she finds wholly unrewarding. “He listens to people,” she tells Bunny, who tries to talk her out of the marriage:

he pays attention. And did you hear what he said the other night about how maybe I’d want to go back to school? I mean, who else has ever suggested that? Who else has even given me a thought? Here in this house I’m just part of the furniture, somebody going nowhere, and twenty years from now I’ll be the old-maid daughter still keeping house for her father.

Pyotr even likes that she’s … blunt? direct? tactless? rude? “In my country they have proverb,” he tells Kate,

“Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.”

This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country, they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously. . . . “but why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”

As this line suggests, there’s not much taming in Tyler’s version, which I appreciated. Kate’s prickly personality instead is part of her appeal. Katherina’s famous closing speech becomes a rant from Katherine, not about how wives should lovingly obey their husband’s, but about how hard it is to be a man who always has to hide his feelings, while women “have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers.”  “It’s like men and women are in two different countries,” she explains to Bunny, who accuses her of subordinating herself to Pyotr;

“I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”

I wasn’t actually convinced that she or Pyotr had earned quite that speech, but along with the epilogue that follows, it does show a happy ending that is based on mutual tolerance for both eccentricity and difficulty, which I liked. And the route there is strewn with funny moments, and the occasional touching one too. Maybe because I can be rather vinegary myself, I would have liked the novel better if it had made Kate harder to like, and admired it more if it had tried to go deeper than it does. Still, like Hag-SeedVinegar Girl gives the impression of an author enjoying the task she’s set herself, and that added to its charm.

“In This House”: Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread

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For years, they owned next to no furniture, having sunk every last penny into the down payment, but he refused to go out and buy just any old cheap stuff, no sir. ‘In this house, we insist on quality,’ he said. It was downright comical, the number of his sentences that started off with ‘In this house.’ In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even though the Whitshanks could not possibly have started out Episcopalians. So ‘this house’ really meant ‘this family,’ it seemed. The two were one and the same.

A Spool of Blue Thread is quintessential Anne Tyler: it’s exactly what you expect to get from one of her novels. If you like Anne Tyler’s novels, which I do, that’s a good thing, though I think there’s no getting around the potential objection that it’s also a sign of their (or her) limitations. Her novels are all more or less the same. They sound the same, they feel the same, they are about, essentially, the same things — especially families, in all their idiosyncratic variations, with all their friction and fondness and foibles. Not any families, though, and certainly not in any way every family. Tyler’s families are (again, more or less) all white middle-class families living in Baltimore, as if in deliberate adaptation of Jane Austen’s injunction that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.”

I don’t mean to diminish Tyler’s accomplishments. Austen, after all, used her stories about “three or four families in a country village” to do an awful lot, from minute moral analysis to pointed social commentary, and I think Tyler does some of the same things. It’s also true, as another famous writer said, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and Tyler’s families — though they aren’t universally unhappy or in any way tragic — always have a crack or two across the heart of their story that lets in just enough unease or dissatisfaction to generate tension and interest. That is certainly true of A Spool of Blue Thread, starting with the Whitshanks’ difficult son Denny (whose erratic comings and goings and enigmatic motivations disrupt his family’s routines) and including unhappy compromises, wounded feelings, and devastating losses.

spool2A Spool of Blue Thread is chronologically wider-ranging than some of Tyler’s novels, which means it has a wider range of characters and some sense of being not just a personal story but also an American story — not as overtly as Smiley’s Some Luck and its sequels, with their relentless chronological march through American history, but still, we get a sense of people shaped by different eras, from the Depression through the Sixties and into the 21st century. I liked the novel’s structure, reaching back into the past and then back yet again, so that we first meet the characters and then learn more about how they came to be who they are, or to be with who they’re with (a process that turns out, in some cases, to be much more fraught than the cherished family stories reveal).

I liked, too, the way the family’s stories are organized around the house that Junior Whitshank built and then finagled away from its original owners. As new generations are born, the house is both a place for them to live and a symbol of their history and identity — but just as the house proves to need constant attention, so too a family is a structure that needs maintenance and may over time show small but irreparable signs of wear. Tyler is adept at the nuances of fretful disappointment:

Junior got his house, but it didn’t seem to make him as happy as you might expect, and he had often been seen contemplating it with a puzzled, forlorn sort of look on his face. He spent the rest of his life fidgeting with it, altering it, adding closets, resetting flagstones, as if he hoped that achieving the perfect abode would finally open the hearts of those neighbors who never acknowledged him. Neighbors whom he didn’t even like, as it turned out.

Life, like houses, doesn’t always give you what you expected, or wanted, or needed; happiness is never guaranteed in Tyler’s world. Just as for the Whitshanks, “the disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice,” however, failures aren’t necessarily the defining features of anyone’s story, and Tyler doesn’t ever let them dominate hers. She is equally good at showing the compensatory grace that comes with forgiveness and reconciliation, for one thing: in her books, people may leave, but (even after death) they almost always come home again, including in my own personal favorite, Ladder of Years.

ladderofyearsI think that’s what, for me, makes Tyler an author whose new books I always seek out, in spite of (or maybe because of) the strong family resemblances between them. They are all books about people coming to terms with life, which is, after all, what most of us are doing ourselves, most of the time — and the wry, resigned tenderness of her storytelling seems to me a model for how we ought to approach both ourselves and others: with honesty, but also with kindness and humor.

Anne Tyler, Ladder of Years

There was a hashtag going around on Twitter today for people sharing the titles of books they read over and over–#GroundHogDayBook, in honor, of course, of Groundhog Day. That’s a funny sort of meme for those of us who read professionally, since I reread as much as I read, maybe more. So it doesn’t seem quite right to point to Middlemarch or Jane Eyre or Great Expectations in response, even though I do reread them at least yearly, and love to do so. What about books I reread for no other reason than because I want to? As it happens, I’m rereading one of those today: Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years.

What is it about Ladder of Years that I like so much? It is one of my longstanding comfort reads (along with Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs and Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair). It’s not that it’s a mindlessly soothing book, or an altogether cheering book. It’s the story of a woman who has become somewhat disoriented in her own life. This is a familiar figure in Tyler’s novels–Back When We Were Grownups, for instance, opens with the beguiling line, “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Who hasn’t felt that way occasionally? In Ladder of Years, Delia feels adrift in her family: she’s not sure her husband ever really loved her (in her darker moments, she suspects he chose her to be sure he’d get her father’s medical practice), her children are teenagers and older and have little time for her, and in general she feels hectored, ineffectual, and unappreciated. One day, on their family vacation, entirely without premeditation–barely even with conscious intent or agency–she walks away along the beach and doesn’t turn back. She gets a ride out of town and goes as far as the small community of Bay Borough, where she rents a room in a boarding house, gets a job, and starts a whole new life.

That’s probably a pretty common fantasy for anyone with a life that feels, as Delia’s does, cluttered rather than meaningful, busy but not fulfilling. It’s a quiet kind of mid-life crisis: an attempt to recapture some essential self, some connection to the world that isn’t overwhelmed by other people–by how they see you, what they want from you, what they say about you. For Delia, her resettlement is a purification: sitting in her barren rented room, she reflects with some satisfaction that she can “detect not the slightest hint that anybody lived here.” “I’m here,” she writes to her tactfully inquring mother-in-law, “because I just like the thought of beginning again from scratch.” Her new life is entirely uncluttered: no family, no friends, no emotional attachments.

But Tyler knows (and so does Delia, deep down) that it’s just a fantasy. Life disentangled is no life, really, and Tyler’s are novels of reconciliation, not alienation. Friends and feelings and connections accrete even around Delia’s stripped-down existence in Bay Borough. Reading Carson McCullers’s “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” right after accidentally adopting a cat, Delia realizes she has begun again on the sequence of loving: “First a time alone, then a casual acquaintance or two, then a small, undemanding animal. Delia wondered what came after that, and where it would end up.” We know it can only end up back in the life Delia really lives, but from her time alone and what follows from it, she gains the strength and clarity to return to it as herself–and to accept her own changing place in it, and on the ‘ladder of years.’

Much as I vicariously enjoy Delia’s escape and the cool, unsentimental way she sets about reinventing herself, it’s her return that makes the novel calming, something I turn to when I’m feeling fretful in my own life. We don’t really want to abandon the people we love, no matter how difficult or annoying or distracting they can be; without the elements we sometimes chafe against as complications or impositions, our lives would be thin and bare and joyless, like Delia’s spartan rented room. Delia tries to walk away, not just from her life, but from life itself. The novel unassumingly, with Tyler’s characteristic dry whimsy, returns her, and us, to where we belong.

Anne Tyler, Noah’s Compass

I trust Anne Tyler’s novels to offer me a quietly bracing, gently satirical, mostly forgiving picture of ordinary people muddling along in their lives. By ‘ordinary’ I don’t mean dull or predictable, as all of us ordinary people have our quirks, eccentricities, and perversities, and these are exactly what Tyler seems to enjoy. Though there are a few of her books that I have reread a few times (Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, A Patchwork Planet, Back When We Were Grownups), my favorite, for whatever combination of sentiment and neurosis, is Ladder of Years. There’s just something satisfying to me about Delia’s decision to walk away, about the little room and the library books and the new job and the new love, but then also about the return home and the readjustment. That return home, which is typical (either literally or in spirit) of the endings Tyler doles out, has a conservative aspect to it, a chastening implication that you probably oughtn’t to have gone so far astray in the first place, or that where you already are is probably better than you think. Or in some cases, the acceptance comes not from staying put, but from letting someone else in, allowing your definition of home to expand or soften.

Noah’s Compass is vintage Tyler, in these respects, except that its ending strikes me as a bit less consoling than usual. It’s interesting, so soon after reading Eat, Pray, Love–which celebrates the quest for self-fulfilment and doesn’t wrestle with possibilities by which it comes at someone else’s expense–to read a book in which the right to happiness is raised but not, ultimately, endorsed as a guiding principle. Tyler raises our hopes (and her characters’ hopes!) about a happy ending, but complicates things by acknowledging another value that may compete with happiness–or that, if denied, may fatally undermine that happiness. “Don’t you think you deserve to spend [your life] with the person you love?” someone demands near the end. The question is deceptively simple but all too often made to seem sufficient to justify all manner of compromises, betrayals, and abandonments. Tyler doesn’t forget that you have to live with yourself after you answer it.

I enjoyed the book very much. Tyler writes with a clarity that was a relief, frankly, after The Transit of Venus, but while she’s more direct than elliptical (again, a relief!) she lets the significance of little moments linger in her readers’ mind rather than beating out the details. Here’s a little exchange between Liam, the divorced, recently burglarized-and-assaulted protagonist, who has just learned something unsettling about his new girlfriend, and his grandson Jonah, who has taken a dislike to his Bible stories coloring book because he’s mad at Noah for leaving so many animals to drown–“He only took two of things,” after all.

“Where’d he buy gas?” Jonah asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Where’d he buy gas for his boat if he was the only guy in the world?”

“He didn’t need gas,” Liam said. “It wasn’t that kind of boat.”

“Was it a sailboat, then?”

“Why, yes, I guess it was,” Liam said. Although he had never noticed sails in the pictures, come to think of it. “Actually,” he said, “I guess he didn’t need sails either, because he wasn’t going anywhere.”

“Not going anywhere?”

“There was nowhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat. He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn’t need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant . . . ”

“What’s a sextant?”

“I believe it’s something that figures out directions by the stars. But Noah didn’t need to figure out directions, because the whole world was underwater and so it made no difference.”

“Huh,” Jonah said. He seemed to have lost interest.

A lot of nice little questions lurk in that moment. Is Liam like Noah? Should Liam / Noah be just trying to say afloat, or ought he to be steering, and if so, where and by what guidance? Does it make a difference? Are thinks in life murky, opaque, underwater, or is it a question of looking below the surface? By the end of the novel, where has Liam gone, and what is his compass? It’s no surprise, in a Tyler novel, that it was right there all the time.

Noah’s Compass wins the prize for the worst included discussion questions I’ve seen in a while. Most of them are of the same painfully literal or solipsistic kind I’ve protested about here before (“Do you like Liam Pennywell as a character? Do you identify with him as a character?”; “Liam is comforted by this thought; do you feel this way, or do you find this viewpoint depressing?”). There is one about the compass bit I’ve just quoted (“How do you think this story relates to Liam’s own life?”), so fair enough, but this one is a doozy: “Did you like the ending of the novel? Did you feel that it satisfactorily answered everything?” Well, maybe not everything . . .

Joanna Trollope, A Village Affair

When I decided to take a break from more “serious” reading with A Village Affair, I wasn’t really expecting the novel to reach towards the serious itself. I had read it before, but what I had retained was admiration for the clarity with which Trollope gives us the people she has devised: many (though not all) of her novels that I have read have struck me as achieving an enviable quality in their characters: they are enormously specific and individual and often intensely, even poignantly, believable. Here, Alice’s father-in-law, Richard, seems especially well conceived. Everything he says communicates to us who he is and how he has lived, particularly in his marriage to a woman he persists in loving but who cannot, in her turn, recognize in him someone as complex and fully human as she is. He lives this hampered life in full knowledge of its limits, neither tragic nor stoic. Alice’s discontent is the stuff of cliches; her affair seems contrived (by the author) to break up the seemingly calm surface, the routines and compromises of daily life. In fact, this is how Trollope’s plots generally work: the ordinary people, the change or revelation, the repercussions. For me, it’s the repercussions she does really well. Having set up her experiment in life, she works out plausibly how it will play out, and she does not sentimentalize–as, in this case, Alice’s “coming alive” through a new and different experience of love creates more problems than it solves.

In this case, as in another of her novels that I think is very smart, Marrying the Mistress, Trollope sets her characters up to confront what is a central dilemma in many 19th-century novels as well, namely how to resolve the conflict between, or how to decide between, duty to self and duty to others. That she is aware of her predecessors in this investigation is indicated by the quotation from Adam Bede recited (OK, improbably) by one of the characters in A Village Affair. As that quotation forcefully indicates, George Eliot placed a high value on renunciation and on accepting (as gracefully as possible) the burden of duty: resignation to less than you want, or less than you can imagine, is a constant refrain, and this with no promise of rapturous happiness. Hence the melancholic tinge at the end of Romola, for instance, or Daniel Deronda, or, for all its lightning flashes of romantic fulfilment, Middlemarch. (Of course, famously, it is her heroines who must resign or, like Maggie Tulliver, die.)

Although much has changed socially and politically since George Eliot found it unrealistic to give Romola, Maggie, or Dorothea uncompromised happy endings, the struggle between what we want for ourselves and what is expected or demanded of us by others continues to be a staple of fiction. Though Trollope’s scenario is much more contemporary, she too accepts that one’s individual desire cannot (or not easily, or not ethically) be one’s guiding principle, because of the “visible and invisible relations beyond any of which our present or prospective self is the centre” (Adam Bede). So Trollope, with admirable restraint, refuses a fairy tale ending for her protagonist, though, with a different kind of insistence that perhaps George Eliot would respect, she also pushes her out of the unsatisfactory life that was her reality before, and into what, given this context, seems like a narrative limbo, or a waiting room. This is not to say that Alice’s single life is an incomplete one, but she herself acknowledges that it is not, in fact, what she really wanted–only what she was capable of achieving.

I think this novel makes an interesting comparison to another quiet novel about a woman reconsidering her life, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, which I have always admired. But Tyler, though far from offering simplistic fairy tales, offers her own version of the resignation narrative. In Ladder of Years, as in Back When We Were Grownups, it proves mistaken for the heroine to try to start a new life, however much she is, or believes she is, following the promptings of her innermost self. Again, the “visible and invisible relations” exert a powerful pressure, like the entangling webs of family and society in Middlemarch but perceived, overall, as more kindly, less petty and destructive. The plain litte room Delia takes and uses as a staging ground to reinvent her life is a room of her own, but her story is not rightly understood as being just about her own life (“was she alone,” Dorothea asks herself). In these novels Tyler’s women learn to appreciate the value of what they tried to leave, to see their own identities as having become inseparable from those of the others whose demands and complications hamper their desires. The vision seems starker in Trollope’s novel (“Aga saga” though it certainly is).