Books I've Read Recently
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
There are so many perks to being part of a book club, one being the opportunity to read things you never would have otherwise picked up. With a cover that reminds me of the chick-lit you find in your local supermarket, Eleanor Oliphant isn't something I'd imagine myself being naturally drawn to. Yet as defining proof that you should never judge a book by its cover, this ended up being a complete surprise to me. In fact it's one of the very few books I've been itching to read a second time around.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine follows its protagonist Eleanor through life, love, grief and uncertainty. She's very much presented as an outsider and has a completely unique way of seeing the world, yet it's almost impossible not to relate to her on one level or another. There's a little bit of romance, but it's by no means the leading arc. Instead the primary themes are centered on acceptance and the importance of establishing your own place in the world. As a novel it's witty, warm and moving, with a twist at the end that genuinely took me by surprise. It's also funny in parts, and to find a book that uses humour in a way that doesn't make me cringe is deserving of five stars.
The Danish Girl
I try to make a point of reading a book before seeing the film adaptation, and The Danish Girl had been on my list since the movie's release in 2015. I'd actually not heard of Lili Elbe before then, but there's something about knowing the subject of a novel is rooted in fiction that draws you in just that little bit more. Born Einar Wegener in Denmark, 1882, Elbe would go on to become one of the world's first recipients of sex reassignment surgery and an icon of transgender history. The Danish Girl follows that journey and Elbe's relationship with wife Gerda. It's that relationship that defined the novel for me - in fact it really is a love story in an unconventional sense.
The Danish Girl was definitely an enjoyable read and one I've recommended to a few people since. I didn't get that sense of being unable to put the book down - in fact it took me longer to get through than any of the others on this list - but I'm glad I read it before seeing the film. I'd recommend that too, although I really struggled to see Eddie Redmayne as Einar/Lili after reading this (controversial opinion: I'm not a Redmayne fan, so that may say more about me than the casting itself). If it was possible to give a book 3 and a half stars, I would.
Life After Life
I so wanted to love this book. Wartime fiction is right up there with my favourite genres, and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is one of those titles that always finds a place on the recommended lists. Life After Life is unique in that it prides itself on its erratic timeline. Atkinson follows Ursula, born in 1910, through two world wars. But the story isn't strictly linear, and Ursula's fate is altered through every chapter. In the end she lives her life a dozen times, being reborn until she manages to dramatically change the course of history. Sound complicated? It sort of is.
This is a book that I struggled to get further into at times, willing it to reach a point where the structure became a bit more coherant. Towards the end I did find myself warming to it, although that was after me switching it out for other things a couple of times along the way. It just didn't engage me in the way I wanted it to unfortunately, and I think the time spent jumping between eras was a big part of that. I'd definitely be interested to give it another go somewhere down the line to see whether things make a little more sense the second time around, but for the first time at least it just wasn't for me.
A Gentleman in Moscow
A Gentleman in Moscow was another of my book club allocations. Again, it's not necessarily something that I'd have picked up of my own accord, but it's definitely notable that the two books on this list with the best reviews are the two that I actually didn't choose myself. A Gentleman in Moscow is the fictional story of Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat sentenced to lifelong house arrest in 1920's Russia. His days are spent in the famous Metropol hotel, from which we follow Russia's changing political landscape through his eyes.
Alexander Rostov isn't positioned as a likable character right from the offset, but it's impossible not to warm to him as time goes on. The only criticism I've come across online is that the story doesn't have a defining plotline. While it's definitely slow-paced in parts, I actually didn't find that to detract from the story at all. The vast majority of this novel is set within the confines of the hotel, which naturally leads to it feeling a little heavy at times. Even so, I thought it was more than made up for in terms of character development and style.
I read NW around 6 months ago, which for some reason feels like a lifetime away. It probably says a lot about a book that I needed to go back and refresh my memory of the plot after such a short space of time, but that's kind of where I'm at with NW. It's the first Zadie Smith novel I've read in full and, while I definitely understand what it is people see in her style of writing, NW just didn't do it for me in the way I expected it to.
As you can probably deduce from the title, NW tells the story of a group of people living in North-West London. The four primary characters grew up together in Caldwell, yet the demands of adulthood and their changing socio-economic status paints a very different picture for all of them 10 years down the line. It's a novel full of contrasts, switching quickly from one character to another in a way that's supposed to mimic the noise and confusion of contemporary urban life. If you're a huge fan of Zadie Smith you'll no doubt be a huge fan of this, but I'm still waiting to read something of hers that really draws me in and forces me to join the bandwagon.