Author: Ottessa Moshfegh
Published in: 2016
By: Vintage Publishing
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel, Eileen, is a dark fiction, a mix of thriller and psychological drama.
Set in the 1960’s, in a small town called ambiguously X-Ville, thus alluding to the universality of her story, the author makes a very long introduction into the protagonist’s life, slowly weaving the readers into the actual events. It almost seems like a long digression leading to nowhere, as the action begins after the middle of the book.
Eileen Dunlop is a young, insecure woman, living with her drunk father in a cluttered house, full of paraphernalia, but devoid of feelings and human interactions. Having had both her parents interested only in her younger sister, she grows up in an emotionally abusive environment, where nobody ever took a genuine interest in her. It is thus no wonder that she has very low self-esteem, festering rages on the inside, while assuming an obedient façade.
Due to the dysfunctional background we are presented with, as a reader, one’s instinct is to take pity on Eileen and root for her escape from this toxic world, but, I found Eileen to be such an unlovable character, verging on a bipolar disorder. Her taste for the gruesome, her sordid inclinations for ancient killing rituals, her shoplifting and drive for alcohol, her self-repulsion, this is what made me keep my distance and observe her actions placidly. Yes, she is lonely and alone and it is not entirely her fault, but she is also so deeply disturbed, up to the point she wishes she’d be raped so that she’d be finally noticed.
[S] Working as a secretary in a correctional facility, Eileen develops an obsession for her co-worker Randy, whom she starts stalking, while imagining all types of romantic scenarios. But, the fantasy ends as abruptly as it starts when a mysterious woman comes to work in the prison. Rebecca’s appearance promises to shake things up into a new perspective, but, it is way too late into the narrative. Her infatuation for Randy is transferred to Rebecca.
There is so much expectation lying in wait that you are at once curious and annoyed at the lack of concrete action. There are constant allusions that the events have happened in the past, but, there is no mention of the present apart from a few monologues. The build-up, although extremely long, is greatly depicted, but, the climax is disappointing and far-fetched. For instance, Rebecca has only spoken once with the Polk boy (an inmate), so why would he confide in her?
Ottessa Moshfegh’s book is about those fractions of seconds in which we snap, when we set free the evil voices inside us and we leave behind our miserable life. It could have been a great read if the plot had been divided equally and if Rebecca’s influence had been portrayed in a culmination of events. Instead, the ending is hasty and we never get a chance to sympathize with Eileen.
Author: Gail Honeyman
Published in: 2018
Eleanor is also the socially awkward protagonist, with an unstable family background, but, as opposed to Eileen, you just want to hug her and tell her that everything will be all right. And, in the end, it is.
But, let’s take things one at a time.
Eleanor Oliphant is a 31-year old assistant who has had the same job for almost a decade. One might call her the weirdo in the office, the kind of person who makes conversations only if asked, unable to engage into day-to-day social conventions. She is annoyingly correct and out of contact with the real world, from her apparel and the TV shows she watches, to her Latin varia dicta and the newspaper crossword puzzles. Her simple, pre-established, ascetic routine is interrupted only by her drinking vodka on Friday nights.
When Eleanor develops a passion for a musician and puts all her efforts into meeting him, the novel takes a very amusing turn. It is so funny to watch Eleanor get a grip of the modern world, trying on for the first-time fashionable clothes and haircuts, manicures and make-up. She is like a child discovering new things, enjoying the little pleasures in life. Her naivete is both delightful and endearing.
But, at the heart of the novel, there lies the real issue with Eleanor. A family past drama, an incident involving her mother which put her into foster care since she was ten and which continues to haunt her in the most vicious way. Her life has been tainted ever since by her mother’s malicious and controlling behaviour, a true master of manipulation. It is this sick, close connection that prevents Eleanor from leading a normal existence.
The two of us are linked forever, you see – same blood in my veins that’s running through yours, you grew inside me, your teeth and your tongue and your cervix are all made from my cells, my genes. Who knows what little surprise I left growing inside there for you, which codes I set running. You we refermenting inside me all of those months, nice and cozy, Eleanor. However hard you try to walk from the fact, you can’t, darling, you simply can’t. It isn’t possible to destroy a bond that strong.
Only Mummy and I inhabit the Oliphant world.
Once the “beautification” process is over, Eleanor plucks up the courage to meet her fantasy man, but, it all goes terribly wrong and she sinks into depression. It is only through therapy and Raymond’s help, a work colleague with whom she has recently become close, that Eleanor manages to pick herself together and have the happy ending she deserves. After several sessions of soul-searching and past acceptance, there comes the revelation and the truth about her mother which manages to set her free. Quite an unexpected turn and a very skillfully constructed moment.
There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.
Gail Honeyman is a master of prose. From her compelling narrative, to her detailed portrayal of character turmoil and ability to turn something sad into something funny, I recommend Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine as a great read. It is a captivating evocation about the power of love and friendship, and a great lesson about accepting your emotions and dealing with your fears and angers.
I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.