Finding the right book at the right time is one of those rare gifts from the universe, much like finding forgotten chocolate in my desk drawer, or seeing a rainbow on an especially desultory day. Starting 2018 with Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was one of those rare gifts, even doubly so in setting the tone for what I hope to be a year of plentiful literary wanderings.
We meet Eleanor at work, a loner accounting employee at a creative design firm, or as she says a “supporting artist” to the firm’s creating “film stars,” but even as the book sets her up as an outsider, and a bit of an office punching bag, it seems, we have the advantage of seeing the world through her eyes. We know, for example, that her weeks are highly ritualized, though somewhat tragically so. As she says of her weekends:
On Fridays, I don’t get the bus straight after work but instead I go to the Tesco Metro around the corner from the office and buy a margherita pizza, some Chianti and two big bottles of Glen’s vodka. When I get home, I eat the pizza and drink the wine. I have some vodka afterward. I don’t need much on a Friday, just a few big swigs. I usually wake up on the sofa around 3 a.m., and I stumble off to bed. I drink the rest of the vodka over the weekend, spread it throughout both days so that I’m neither drunk nor sober. Monday takes a long time to come around.
We are also privy to the fact that she has developed adolescent crush on a local celebrity of sorts. She becomes intoxicated by this delusion of impossible romantic love, the one thing she imagines that will finally complete her life, while remaining largely unaware of a genuine burgeoning friendship with her fellow nerdy co-worker, Raymond. But even as we understand her as deeply flawed, she is not ridiculous, and as we uncover her traumatic past we are willing to give her as many passes as she needs. Eleanor is unexpectedly relatable as a champion for anyone who has come through a deeply troubling time and developed their own mechanisms for subsistence, even if these mechanisms aren’t exactly healthy or sustainable. But Eleanor is also a champion for the lonely. Honeyman herself explains that Eleanor’s story was born after reading a newspaper article about loneliness. Usually only addressed in regards to elderly populations, Honeyman explains:
[I] was particularly struck by an interview with a woman in her 20s who confessed that after leaving work on a Friday night she often wouldn’t talk to anyone until she returned on Monday morning. ‘I started to think how could that be the case, and I realized there were lots of ways people could end up leading that sort of life through no fault of their own.’
I read some other thoughts about the book that suggested that the book’s main plot twist was unnecessary, but I actually found it to be quite profound. Without it I’m not sure that I would have felt the magnanimity of Eleanor’s growth, or rather the degree to which her post-traumatic stress becomes debilitating. But even before we understand the depth of her baggage, Eleanor is stridently marching to her own beat, and it’s hard not to love her for it. Part of me had hoped for a more solidified ending to the book, but I also think we leave Eleanor and crew in a very honest and raw place, which if not completely certain, is definitely hopeful.
Immediately after I (reluctantly) said goodbye to Eleanor, Mr. Brain walked in the door with a gift from our neighborhood’s Little Free Library: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. For some reason this memoir felt like a fitting read after leaving Eleanor in a good place, and I was immediately enthralled, less voyeuristically than out of a sense of paying homage. Jean-Dominique Bauby suffers a terrible stroke at the age of 43 and is left in a living hell. The stroke that should have killed him, as he states, instead has left him in completely incapacitated after medical intervention. While his cognition remains unharmed, he is almost completely paralyzed, save for some head and eye movement. The medical term for this non-vegetative vegetative state is locked-in syndrome. Despite being paralyzed, he does experience pain in his extremities, and is hearing is impaired so that anything beyond 10 feet is amplified and distorted. He describes many painstaking nights during which a caregiver forgets to shut the door to his hospital room and he is forced to endure a maddening cacophony until someone decides to come check in on him. He is able to communicate by blinking his only functional eye using a somewhat cumbersome system. He responds by blinking to alphabet letters arranged in front of him by their frequency of use, and this is how he composes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dictating its words letter by letter.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly isn’t a chronicle of Bauby’s life after stroke, per se, though there are enough glimpses into his new daily existence to understand its horrors. The book is a reflection on life, on specific memories, on dreams, and yes, on loss. The book concludes with Bauby’s recollections of his last day of living with an able body, rendering me stunned at the swiftness and surprise with which his life is mortally altered. It’s impossible to read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and not walk away immensely grateful for the simple acts of wiggling your toes and eating foods you enjoy, but the real gratitude is for Bauby himself, whose words stand alone as poetic and philosophical, but are even more profoundly moving in imagining them as carefully chosen and remembered before being painstakingly dictated in silence.
*Featured image credit: Bruce Aldridge. I added filters to enhance the photo’s color and exposure.