Book Review: Social Creature

Image: The Irish Times

Title: Social Creature

Author: Tara Isabella Burton

Rating: 3/5

Publisher: Bloomsbury, Kindle Edition

Synopsis

This dark, twisted and enigmatic story follows the life of Louise, an aspiring writer nearing her 30s. She lives in New York and is floating around jobs but is always hoping to make it as a writer. Louise has nothing, but like many young people, hopes she can make something of herself in the city.

Louise then meets Lavina. Lavina has everything that Louise doesn’t and soon invites her into her flat to stay. It all seems to good to be true. Louise relishes the prospect of living rent free and living the sophisticated writer life she had always dreamed of. However, we soon learn of the demands of Lavina’s friendships and social circle.

Louise is swept under Lavina’s wing with constant socialising, parties, relationships, gossip, drinking, drug taking and fine dining in America’s big city. Louise, would rather a quieter life, but she has to keep up with Lavina’s lifestyle in order to earn her place as her best friend and have a right to stay in her apartment. She has to perform the role of being her own personal, social butterfly.

Slowly, but surely, Louise manages to sneak money from Lavina’s bank account into her own. Her justification is that Lavina will not even notice such small amounts when her balance is over $100,000, and this is so that she can eventually escape and live out her own life. Also, this arrangement she has crafted, supposedly will allow her more time for writing, rather than working in jobs she doesn’t want to be in.

Many tragic events unfold and change Louise’s life for good. It’s a story of demanding friendships, the maintenance of a certain lifestyle and living in the ever present social media age.

Review

It feels strange to be writing a review on a book I only warranted three stars. I think that’s even a first on this blog…? But at the same time, you can’t always sing the praises of every book you read. Saying that, there were elements to this book that I enjoyed, but I can’t help but think everything about this was slightly cliche.

I was initially attracted to this book due to its portrayal of the social media age and its critique of the hold it has over our lives,

“Lavina does so many interesting things that week. Louise seems them all on Facebook and Instagram.”

Tara Burton

I think it is a very interesting topic and it was explored in the book well. Louise and Lavina’s whole friendship is based on telling the world of their latest outings, events and friendships by posting it online for everyone to see. They cannot go a day without taking each other’s photograph or resist a selfie when there’s good lighting. There is never a social setting where a picture isn’t taken and posted online, there always has to be proof. Proof that they weren’t sitting at home in their pajamas on a Friday night.

I think the idea of exploring this dependency on social media in friendships is an interesting topic and generally explored well in this book. However, everything else seemed a bit incoherent and unrealistic. The turn of events were completely unpredictable, but they did make me want to read on. I found Louise, the protagonist, quite likable but as events progressed, it was like following a different person who went from bad to worse. As a result, I was not able to fully develop a connection with her character as her actions were so unpredictable. I feel as a reader, I never really ‘knew’ her or had the chance to.

It was interesting to see New York used as a setting of a story in a negative way, as in many novels, this city is glamorized. However, Burton plays on its faults to critique the styles of social interaction which are prevalent in young people. Life for Louise, Lavina and their social groups, revolves around crack-cocaine, alcohol, 4am finishes, money and constant posing for their social media profiles. In a way, no one in this book is a ‘social creature’ but merely playing to the disguise of being one. Every night is more of the same thing,

“Nothing in this city changes, and every party is the same, and every bar is the same…”

Tara Burton

but yet it is all done again and again, as that is what is expected of you.

Above all, I thought it had the potential to be an interesting story due to the complexity of some of the ideas that Burton put forward. However, the characterisation of the main protagonist was weak as their was no consistency in her development and actions. At some points the writing felt very cliche, but perhaps that was the point. Nonetheless, I never wanted to stop reading this book due to the sheer craziness and unpredictability of it. It’s worth a read, but is not something that I would go back to.

If you want a quick read that deals with some interesting, contemporary ideas which require little concentration or awareness, this would be a good one.

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Image: The Guardian

Title: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Author: Gail Honeyman

Rating: 5/5

Publisher: HarperCollins, Kindle Edition

Synopsis

Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, follows the simple life of a young woman. Eleanor goes to work five days a week, comes home on the Friday, has rather a lot to drink, and catches up on sleep over the weekend.

At work, she doesn’t talk to many people, but always gets on with the day. She doesn’t go out and socialize on Friday nights or the weekends, despite the expectation. Once a week, she receives a phone-call from her Mum, which is her only real form of communication outside work. She lives a simple life, but one that is seemingly lonely and void of human interaction, friendship and support.

Her relationship with her Mum, is told through a series of weekly phone calls. These phone calls are often hard to take in, due to the sheer level of emotional abuse her Mum conveys to her over the phone.

“Mummy has always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She’s done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.”

Gail Honeyman

After a certain turn of events, feauturing helping an elderly gentleman after he had a fall and becoming (acccidentally) friends with a work colleague from the IT department, Eleanor begins to realise her life is very lonely, and in fact, socialising isn’t too bad (in moderation.)

The novel gradually unravels troubling elements of Eleanor’s past, we learn fairly early on that she grew up in the care system but for a while, never discover why. With the help of her new friend, Raymound, Eleanor begins the journey of coming to terms with her past. This novel is as true as they come. Through Eleanor, we get an insight into the realities of loneliness, depression, and fractured family life.

“I have been waiting for death all my life. I do not mean that I actively wish to die, just that I do not really want to be alive.”

Gail Honeyman

Review

Strangely enough, I picked up this book in the Kindle deals for £1, thinking it would be a nice ‘in-between read,’ as I am still ploughing my way through Ducks, Newburyport. However, I was pleasantly surprised and found myself utterly drawn to the book, so much so that I didn’t read a single page of Ducks, Newburyport. Nonetheless, it is far more complex than the ‘light and fluffy’ type read that I initially had it down for.

After reading internet reviews, it seems that many people didn’t take to the main character, Eleanor Oliphant, very well. Or rather, didn’t know how to feel about her. However, I immediately took to her. I liked the way she actively defies social expectations, says what she thinks – she conveyed a huge amount of honesty and integrity as a character; which meant I was drawn towards her. Often, she made me laugh out loud too.

Part of my reasons for loving this novel is because I found myself relating to Eleanor so much. Like Eleanor, I too experienced the care system, although not to the same extremities as herself. I too, sometimes struggle in social situations and often withdraw myself into the comfort of my own home. However, apart from feeling a sense of attachment towards her, I enjoyed the novel in its entirety. Upon reading it, I could not predict what was going to come next, yet I could not put the book down.

This novel should be praised and read for its sheer honesty and exploration of many contemporary, social issues which are not fully discussed openly within mainstream society. Eleanor is a young woman suffering from crippling loneliness, depression, social withdrawal and alcoholism – although she would rarely drink to excess in public. As a young woman in her thirties, society tells her she should have her whole life together. However, this novel sheds an important light onto the realities of everyday life as a young adult – and the fact that not everyone can always have it together.

It’s a novel that deals with some very difficult subjects but is delivered in the most lighthearted, honest and engaging way. Eleanor Oliphant begins to open up more herself as the novel progresses. Upon finishing the book; the reader begins to be reassured that Eleanor Oliphant; is going to be completely fine.

Book Review: Lolita

Title: Lolita

Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Rating: 4/5

Publisher: Penguin, Penguin Classics

Synopsis

Lolita, is a first person narrative novel, told through the eyes of a middle aged professor, Humbert Humbert. Humbert develops an obsession with a twelve year old girl, Dolores Haze, who he pursues for the rest of his days. Humbert nicknames his prey, Lolita, and attempts to gain greater access to her, in becoming a lodger at her Mother’s house in Ramsdale, New England.

It is here, where Humbert builds upon his disguse of being the studious professor, working on writing his book. However, this is when the access, and consequently, obsession, with Lolita begins. Soon, he will have unrivaled access, as he marries Charlotte, Lolita’s mother.

After a tragic set of events working in his favour, Lolita and Humbert embark on a road trip across America, staying in various motels along the way. Throughout this, Humbert engages in sexual activity with Lolita and constantly rewards her with the ‘things’ she desires – the mundane clothes, candy and magazines that young girls crave.

Eventually, of course, Humbert gets caught and his pursuit of Lolita suddenly comes to an end. The novel ends with Humbert imprisoned but still professing his love for Lolita,

“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Review

Image: Amazon

This novel made me experience a whirlwind of different emotions. Simultaneously, I was in awe of the construction of the novel and the sheer complexity of some of the images and prose Nabokov has created, but at the same time, was reeling in disgust due to the difficulties of the content. Scenes that detailed Humbert’s sexual encounters with Lolita, and his portrayal of lingering desire for young girls in general, left me with a sense of rage and disgust.

Nabokov, in the use of this first person narrative, creates an unrivaled account of a middle aged man’s erotic obsession with a twelve year old girl. This unrivaled account which has been deemed as “unreliable” by critics, means that Lolita’s point of view is swept away under the carpet. As readers, we are never enlightened into her perspective. Thus, there are many unanswered questions. Effectively, she is silenced, which I suspect is the very point. Additionally, the relationship is almost normalised, especially by the use of ‘relationship’ type prose throughout,

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Moreover, the silencing of the victim is achieved in the crafting of this first person narrative. Many (i.e, Stephen Metcalf), have pointed to this as being Nabokov’s critique of totalitarianism under the Soviet regime. Nabokov was a known opponent of the Soviet government and opposed Tsarists autocracy, communism and fascism that he lived through. It is possible, that this silencing of Lolita, the stripping of her identity and childhood, conveys a sense of control not too dissimilar to that used by the Soviet regime.

Lolita immediately gained a ‘classic’ status despite its controversial topic, it was even banned from entering the United Kingdom in 1955. However, its classic status is arguably not due to the story or unconventional theme; but its literary construction. The reader is constantly exposed to a series of complex metaphors and lyric poetic passages that make it easy to forget the shocking undertones of the novel. It can be easy to get swept away by the beauty of the language and forget that something very sinister is taking place on the pages before you. However, as someone that is a sucker for beautiful prose, I appreciated this element.

What struck me as particularly strange and almost sinister, was Humbert’s own self awareness of the horror of his actions and desires. He constantly addresses the reader as “the jury” – putting himself deliberately on trial. But the novel is a monologue of his own account and he always refers to the brutality of his crimes,

“One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimisitc. Taboos strangulated me.”

Vladimir Nabokov

However, regardless of the morality Humbert places on his actions, there is a certain directness in his address to the reader and the narration almost feels like a sit down conversation between him and the reader. There is a sense of intimacy which is enlightening and highly disturbing. Behind everything, and perhaps most of his motivations, appears to be Humbert’s absolute frustration with the restraints of American society,

“….civilisation which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve…”

“We are not surrounded in our enlighttened era by the little slave flowers that can be casually plucked…”

Vladimir Nabokov

I sensed a definitive obsession with what he perceived as the faults within society – for, the one he lived in permitted his relationship with a twelve year old girl. He believes these rules are in place due to the creation division between childhood and adulthood (page 124.)

Humbert as a narrator is truly, and honestly, self reflective which felt like an attempt to appear more human. However, despite this level of self reflection and awareness, he still maintained at the end of the novel that despite his obsession with Lolita being over, he would always crave the same thing,

“I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of my pederoins.”

Vladimir Nabokov

In a way, being able to acknowledge himself as a, “pentapod monster” who did wrong, but still wanting to pursue this, is the mark of a truly disturbed, and possibly incurable individual.

In sum, I found the book incredibly well written and thought provoking. I enjoyed the kind of lyricism Nabokov used and was drawn into the first person narration despite its flaws. There were no barriers or restraint, which made it an interesting psychological insight, as well as a literary joy to read.

This complex first person narration gives the reader nowhere to hide. It is compelling, disturbing and unforgiving. But its craft is a work of art just in itself. This paradox between the beauty of the prose, and the harrowing, disturbing nature of the subject fills the novel with complexity. I can see why this is a a classic; Lolita will linger with me for a long time to come.