I recently read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. You know you know this book – it’s everywhere. Target shelf? Check. A selection for Reese Witherspoon’s new “book club” via her nascent media enterprise Hello Sunshine? Why, yes. Set to be made into a movie by same company? Hello (sunshine)! But not at your library because 150 people have holds on it before you? Of course.
Reading rule of thumb: If it’s on the shelf at Target, there’s a very good chance it’s going to be off the shelf at your local library, i.e. 150 holds before your turn. If Reese Witherspoon or Oprah endorses it? Perhaps double that library hold number.
My friend Ashley says that books like Eleanor Oliphant – a quick page-turner about a “quirky,” earnest, and unintentionally hilarious 30-something woman who learns to cope with the real world after a traumatic childhood – “scratch an itch.” These types of books are laugh-out-loud funny (or at least for me this one was) and easy, but nonetheless well-written and clever. Think Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?) or a 20-years-on Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Let’s call it chick lit for the woman who normally avoids chick lit.
Regarding Eleanor Oliphant: I laughed, I cried (I really did, but it was while I was on a plane, so I had to hide it), and it was way, way better than what is sometimes on Target’s shelves. (I cheated and downloaded it to my Kindle.) At first glance, it seems that Eleanor is quite sheltered – she doesn’t “know how” to dance, and here is her initial dance-floor observation:
“During the next free-form jiggling section, I started to wonder why the band was singing about, presumably, the Young Men’s Christian Association, but then, from my very limited exposure to popular music, people did seem to sing about umbrellas and fire-starting and Emily Brontë novels, so, I supposed, why not a gender- and faith-based youth organization?”
Reading: It’s the quintessential “hobby” to add a little pizazz to your bio. Somewhere along the line, it became de rigueur for companies (particularly of the hip start-up variety) to have their employees include whimsical and totally-unrelated-to-their-job tidbits in their bios in an effort, I suppose, to humanize and personalize the faces behind a (hopefully) profit-making enterprise. This is a completely unscientific and totally anecdotal conclusion, but I believe this to be the most common line in a professional bio: “Outside of work, Employee X can be found with a book in hand, enjoying [insert craft beer or designer coffee].” Now, to be fair, the beverage can sometimes be replaced with sporting hobbies (kayaking/climbing/skiing, most likely) or the ever-generic “travel,” but you know what the constant will be the majority of the time? Reading. “You like to read? Hey, I like to read too! I just knew I wanted to do business with this company!”
So, we’re a society of “readers,” and contemporary culture has glommed on to this. Take a look at the success of Oprah’s Book Club, the brouhaha that Amazon caused when Kindle was first introduced, and the $15.05 billion in book sales in America in 2013. Notice, too, the number of book clubs in your community or circle of friends. If you’re a woman of any age with the luxury of just a tiny bit of post-workday leisure time, and you haven’t frequented at least one book club meeting, you may be an anomaly. (Why is the converse such an anomaly? I met some neighbors down the road recently and was pleasantly surprised that the husband was a part of a men’s book club.) I love book clubs and am ever grateful that my next-door neighbor invited me to join hers, as it is comprised of a bunch of smart women who choose thoughtful books as well as “supplemental” materials, such as interesting documentaries that we can find on Netflix. It is nothing like this:
But with a culture of book clubs, internet-based publishing, and the domination of large bookstore chains that put what they want us to read front and center, are we choosing what we’re reading based on the experience of reading something “together”? This notion of communal reading can be a great one; Dublin, for instance, hosts a “One City, One Book” initiative every year. But in the years that I’ve been a “reader,” I’ve learned that there are some books that are simply better-designed for group discussion than others, and that sometimes those selections fall flat when read with the intent of individual contemplation and enjoyment.
The Children Act, Ian McEwan’s latest (as well as—surprise!—my book club’s selection for next week), is the perfect book club book. Full of the type of moral and ethical dilemmas that require some mental and emotional gymnastics to unravel, McEwan’s thirteenth novel nonetheless provides an overly tidy look into the institutions of religion and marriage. High Court Judge Fiona Maye must simultaneously balance the potential implosion of her marriage as well as a People magazine-esque case wherein a just-underage Jehovah’s Witness refuses a blood transfusion to treat his leukemia on religious grounds as well as due to the implied pressure from his parents. McEwan deftly weaves these issues together with two rock-solid themes. Here, in lieu of a back-of-the-book discussion guide, are two points to consider at your book club meeting:
First, the concept of “need” arises as soon as the novel opens and Fiona’s husband Jack declares his intent to start an affair with a much-younger colleague: “I need [an affair]. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot.” McEwan further describes the man’s “unmet sexual needs.” And then, of course, the title of the book references a piece of 1989 legislation in the UK by the same name, and McEwan takes care to outline the many “needs” of a child: “On the whole, [Fiona] believed in the provisions of family law. In her optimistic moments, she took it as a significant marker in civilisation’s progress, to fix in the statutes the child’s needs above its parents.” Before she hears leukemia patient Adam Henry’s case, she presides over the case of divorced Jewish parents—the father more observant and conservative than the mother—and hears how the man “accused his wife of being unable to separate her own needs from the children’s. What she said they needed was whatever she wanted for herself.” And of course we have Adam, the almost-adult who needs a blood transfusion if he wants to live. The book is ripe for discussion about the idea of “necessity” and where the line falls on the “want versus need” continuum—and whether or not legislation can touch what one determines to be a “need.”
Second, the notion of motherhood colors the novel. McEwan delineates Fiona’s thought process in predictable form. “Yes, her childlessness was a fugue in itself, a flight – this was the habitual theme she was trying now to resist – a flight from her proper destiny. Her failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term.” Is it any wonder that Fiona, therefore, is drawn to Adam’s case? The author seemingly takes a stereotypical notion and inserts it into interactions with the patient, while Fiona probes his relationship with his own parents. To remind readers that Fiona is not a mother but enjoys the younger generation, nieces and nephews of Jack and Fiona make random appearances throughout the book.
Between the discussion of needs and motherhood (and, if your book club would like to take it to the next level, how those two themes intersect), your book club meeting can be a fruitful one. But if you’re looking for some extra guidance, McEwan gives Adam this idea and therefore the perfect trifecta for book club discussion: “And if God, poetry and science all said the same thing, it had to be true, didn’t [Fiona] think?”
All this is not to say that The Children Act is trite. Rather, it touches upon the types of ideas that are appropriate for communal discussion—perhaps best deliberated over an aforementioned pint of craft beer or cup of designer coffee. It’s the sort of book that can bring out the best in readers when we blur the lines of personal and professional by sharing not only our life experiences but the details and facts about how we believe our world to work.
Yet that begs a tree-and-forest question: If a book is absolutely spectacular, but isn’t read with the intent to discuss with others, has it earned acclaim in our “reading” culture?
When we visited the National Museum of Scotland in October, we ventured into the “rocks and minerals” wing, usually a favorite spot for my daughter. However, this time, it was my son who seemed to have a strong reaction to the amethyst geodes and orbicular granodiorite. A few feet away from him and my husband, I heard the latter gasp, “What did you say?” It turns out that my son had, rather loudly, announced the display they were looking at: Folded Schist. I’ll let you try to imagine what my husband thought his dear offspring had exclaimed in a museum.
Thankfully, that miscommunication was cleared quickly, but no one likes being in the dark, thinking that they’re following a conversation and narrative when all along something different is being conveyed. Even worse, no one wants to be the initiator of an exchange that doesn’t quite translate. I’ve learned that my “Ha, ha, I thought you said…” responses to someone with a thicker accent than I’m accustomed to are usually funny only to me. (Although I maintain that my mistaking a game my children were playing—Clash of Clans—for “Colossal Clowns” is a good one.)
Well, Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, is therefore an appropriate book to choose for a blog that examines the potential ways that a piece of fiction can inspire a reader—in big sweeps or little peeps—or provide color to what we accept as truisms. On March 24, The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner” column posted an interview with author Louise Erdrich, where she mentions that “Nothing I write ever has a moral. If it seems to a reader that there is one, that is unintentional. But is there a reason I wrote this story [“The Big Cat”]? Perhaps.” Oh.
What, then, is a reader looking for? There’s certainly a brand of fiction that paints a moralistically clear picture. Think John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, or many mystery reads. But Sweet Tooth delves into the world of MI5, the British equivalent of the CIA, and we’ve got a literary Homeland on our hands. Who’s right, what’s wrong, and what is the author really trying to relay here? This is not as simple as Nancy Drew would have us believe!
Serena Frome, recruited to MI5 via a former lover, is asked to get involved in Operation Sweet Tooth, an attempt to subtly propagate pro-Western and pro-capitalist messages via literature. Fitting for anyone who loves to read, our protagonist is a book lover as well. As she ages, her reading preferences transform from “I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them,” to “And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for something, a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes…For it was my best self I wanted, not the girl hunched in the evenings in her junk-shop chair over a cracked-spine paperback, but a fast young woman pulling open the passenger door of a sports car…I craved a form of naïve realism.” And so after falling in love with the short stories of her “target,” a writer named Tom Haley, she slides into their own version of a plot and falls for him.
Soon, however, the fact that she knows Tom starts to inform her reading of his fiction. McEwan cleverly intersperses her narration of and take on a story’s plot with some phrases italicized, the italics presumably indicating the actual text of the work. Serena realizes this: Tom “was my project, my case, my mission. His art, my work and our affair were one. If he failed, I failed.” And soon thereafter, she comes to a more thorough understanding of how fiction can worm itself into a real, non-fictitious life: “…I thought I was beginning to grasp something about invention. As a reader, a speed-reader, I took it for granted, it was a process I never troubled myself with. You pulled a book from the shelf and there was an invented, peopled world, as obvious as the one you lived in. But now…I thought I had the measure of the artifice…”
Just as Serena’s understanding of what it means to “read” matures, I think there are two ways that we read a work of fiction. When I was five, after I saw a Broadway touring show of Annie, I thought living in an orphanage with all my best friends and an evil matron who we would overpower with our acrobatics and mischievous ways would be a fantastic way to live. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) This is what I consider the “escapism” part of reading (or in this case, watching a show). We know it’s not realistic—although that notion didn’t stop me from trying to give myself an Annie perm with my mom’s curling iron—but it’s fun. I don’t think the author’s intent is necessarily hidden in this case: No folded schist here!
But what about the massive amount of complex literature out there? Many books are trickier and stickier. On this blog’s “about” page, I include a quote from Julian Barnes which essentially intimates that writers get to share their own precise version of the world. Reading a book like this is not about slotting ourselves in to some madcap adventure that will never come to fruition; it’s picking and choosing the best versions of a character or a plot and layering them on top of every other philosophy we maintain. How do authors feel when a seemingly crystal-clear message gets garbled? Or are authors more like Louise Erdrich, forfeiting distinct messages for ambiguity?
With these types of books, we attach great meaning to characters and their motives and perhaps think, “What would I do in that situation?” or “What are the moral implications of the way this plot is unfolding?” Of course, no writer can examine every permutation of a situation, so we’re left to our own devices. Is it somehow wrong that a book speaks to us so emphatically that we attach great meaning to it?
One of Sweet Tooth’s take-aways (I mean, for me. Mr. McEwan, do you care to comment?) is how easily fiction and fantasy can become intertwined or confused with hard facts, resulting in some twisted, ethereal reality. Perhaps this thought makes you want to throw away all your Margaret Atwood novels and go back to Mitford. But by the end of Sweet Tooth, all I kept thinking is that we are, in fact, our own walking texts that are being read and interpreted daily. Perhaps Marshall McLuhan, granddaddy of contemporary media theory, would agree: The medium is the message, after all. What do we want to attempt to convey, knowing that not everyone’s going to get it right?