Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Everyone has their own view of what is normal. I normally have weetabix for breakfast (lots of milk, a little dash of sugar and a few raspberries, mmmm) but to some that would be quite peculiar. They may hate soggy, milky mush or just not be able to face eating until lunchtime. They may have dietary needs, either through health issues or training needs for some kind of sport, which mean they need to eat a high protein, low-carb meal to start the day: they have their own normal. Some people may baulk at the idea of eating the same thing every morning – they may thrive on creating a unique meal each day. Everybody’s normal is valid for them but, I wonder, do they ever stop to wonder where their view of ‘normal’ comes from? Or, maybe more importantly, where the normal of those they consider to be complete oddballs has its source.

9780008172145Eleanor Oliphant has what she considers to be a very sensible attitude to life. She wears the same clothes to work each day (selected from a choice of a couple of pairs of black trousers, a few white blouses and some sensible flat, black shoes), spends her lunch break eating a ‘meal deal’ from a local shop and doing a crossword (thereby avoiding waste – eating a whole pack of ham/cheese/tuna before it spoils is hard when you live alone – and keeping her mind active) and speaks to her mother every Wednesday (even if she’d rather not). So far she seems like someone I should be emulating – I could have an extra five minutes in bed if I didn’t have to decide what to wear each day and, on the weeks when Rob is away, I do sometimes have to either throw away food or eat the same thing every day for a week. And I should certainly ring my Mum more often… However, Eleanor also buys a couple of bottles of vodka each week – what has happened in her life that she needs to blot out her weekends? That is where you realise that, whatever she claims, Eleanor Oliphant is really not completely fine. It seems she is going to continue with her pattern of work, predictability and weekends of total oblivion indefinitely until two things happen: she sees a man who she believes is ‘the one’ and she, along with a colleague from work, helps an old man who has a fall in the street. These two things lead her to start changing her life – and she discovers that planning for her future leads her to start investigating the past she had managed to forget.

Eleanor is a wonderful character – so well-drawn and yet so deeply, deeply flawed. The more we learn (along with her) about her past the more we realise why she needs to drink a couple of bottles of vodka each weekend: anything to avoid remembering. The book is so well written that you feel with her – the plans to make herself into a more conventionally attractive woman, despite the physical as well as emotional scars she bears, the irritation with those who don’t manage to live in as organised a way as she does and the crippling horror of the memory of a blighted childhood. We may not all share Eleanor’s dark past but reading this book made me realise that we all have our own demons to deal with: her’s are just larger and scarier than mine…

Jane

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There’s a story to suit everyone, probably…

9780007504114Quite a lot of the customers we see in the days running up to Christmas are ones we don’t see at any other time of year. Nothing wrong with that – not everyone has the time, inclination or money to read – but it does mean we have to make sure that we stock as wide a range of fiction in December as we can. We can’t just rely on selling people the books that we have loved through the year (although that bit is great fun) we have to make sure we have the books that they will love too. Some authors make this much easier by bringing out a new book towards the end of each year (Bernard Cornwell, Martina Cole, Giovanna Fletcher, Wilbur Smith, Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler, to name a few) and are, in fact, so regular that we all get very confused if they miss a year. Of course this is nothing new: Catherine Cookson was a very prolific writer and seemed to bring out two books every year, perfectly timed for both Christmas and Mother’s Day. Now that’s dedication…

9781447278733This Christmas we also have some treats coming from authors who are slightly more restrained in their output (although just as popular). I’ve already mentioned Philip Pullman in my children’s book round-up but he is, if anything, even more popular with adults – after all, the young teens who read the His Dark Materials novels as they were published are now in their 30s. Dan Brown has produced his first new novel since 2013, Ken Follett has published his first since 2014 (and it marks a ten year gap since the previous book in this series) and Marian Keyes has returned to fiction after a three year break. On the more literary side The Sparsholt Affair ends a six year dry spell for fans of Alan Hollinghurst and, despite producing plenty of non-fiction, there are twenty years between Arundhati Roy’s first novel and this year’s offering.

9780008185213This year, however, as in so many others I am looking forward to helping people choose some of 2017’s debut novels. Some of them have authors everybody has heard of – Tom Hanks’ collection of short stories reads like a series of vignettes from Tom Hanks films – and others are books which have been beloved by every bookseller I know who’ve read them. Some have sprung from Facebook pages and others from goodness know what strange dark depths of the authors heart. Every work of fiction has a customer out there waiting to discover it; every reader is just a step away from finding a new favourite book.*

Jane

*That, and lots of chocolate, is what keeps me going through the next few weeks.