Betsy Robinson's Reviews > Eggshells

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally
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it was amazing

Vivian, whose sister is also named Vivian, was considered by her dead parents to be a changeling—a nonhuman from fairyland. She lives alone with no job and no friends in her dead great-aunt's house, where she tries not to hurt the feelings of all the inanimate objects in her life, and she seeks to mimic how "real humans" think and behave.

A winner of the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair 2014, Eggshells is Vivian's story of trying to be normal, while searching desperately for an entrance to a place where she belongs.

I have never been to Ireland, but Eggshells gave me the kind of tour of Dublin that only a down-and-out resident could give. Through Vivien's confused and twisted mind, I saw street signs with letters blocked out, alleyways, boardwalks, buildings that "look like they were dropped from a height and shoved together, with the Central Bank sticking up behind, like a Lego brick they forgot to paint." I walked the roads, crossed bridges, visited shops, seeing everything through Vivien's skewed mind. Her extreme mind might have become too much if not for the hilarious interchanges she has when she actually talks to other humans—which mostly she doesn't.

The writing is so rich and idiosyncratic, I could probably quote something from each page. But here's an example from fairly early in the novel:

Following one of her random obsessions, Vivian decides to purchase only blue food. A "heap of giddy rises in [her] throat" as she approaches the check-out cashier:
'Do you notice anything about my items?' I ask.

She looks like she doesn't want to play my game, so I make it easy for her.

'They're all blue!'

'Oh yeah, why?'

'I'm having a blue party!'

The snarl on her face melts a little.

'Is it his favourite colour?' she asks

'Whose favourite colour?'

She looks confused.

'Your little boy, are these not for is birthday party?'

I think for a moment.

'Yes, they are. And I'm making a Smurf cake!'

The woman behind me in the queue pokes her head into the conversation.

'Ah that's lovely, what age is he?'

'They're six. I have boy twins.'

The words glide out of my mouth like a silk thread.

'You must have your hands full with them,' the woman behind me says, but the shop assistant only stares.

'How come you never have them in here with you?'

'Oh . . .'

I think for a minute.

'They're in wheelchairs.'

'Ah God, that's terrible, terrible!'

'Who minds them?' asks the shop assistant. Her face is squeezed into strange shapes.

'What?'

'When you come in here to do your shopping, who minds them?'

'Oh, they're fine on their own.'

'You leave them alone?'

Her voice sounds like a cup shattered on a tile. I look from one angry face to the other.

'They can't get out of their wheelchairs, they're fine.'

They look at each other the way that girls in school used to look at each other: an eye-lock that doesn't include me. Then they look at me with a purity of hate that stiffens me. I pack my blue items into my bag—I wish I'd remembered to bring a blue plastic bag—and pay. The woman behind me is muttering to the woman behind her, and I catch the words, 'social services . . . shouldn't be let have kids . . . something wrong with her.' I take my change and hurry off with great big gulps of marbles in my throat. When I reach the house I rush in, close the door and bolt it. If social services come, they might be angrier that I'm not neglecting children I don't have than if I was neglecting children I did have. I feel sadder than I've ever felt before, sad like the end of the world has come and gone without me. (42–43)

Eventually Vivien manages to find a sympatico friend, after advertising for a friend named Penelope—because she wants to know why the name doesn't rhyme with antelope. Here is a description of Penelope's driving when the two women go on a car trip:
Penelope sighs and swerves to avoid a cyclist, who roars something I can't hear. She drives like a Don't Drink and Drive ad, she drives with a rattle and a wallop and a clang and a bang. When she doesn't like the feel of a lane or the colour of a puddle or the shape of a pothole, she glides into the other lane. I've never seen cars driving straight at me before, the drivers' mouths forming into cartoon 'O's before beeping and swerving. (144)

I loved Eggshells, a well-written, funny, and ultimately heartbreaking book about an extreme outsider, and I recommend it to anybody who feels or has felt like or is open to stories about people on the margins of society.

Other Information
A good interview with author Caitriona Lally in The Irish Times about how she wrote the book while she was having trouble finding work.

Some information about the Irish Writer Centre Novel Fair, an event to "introduce up-and-coming writers to top publishers and literary agents, giving novelists the opportunity to bypass the slush pile, pitch their ideas, and place their synopsis and sample chapters directly into the hands of publishers and agents." (And here's the main Irish Writers Centre website.)

A very good Irish Times review says that Eggshells favors language over plot. Essentially I agree, however, I'd like to say that there are different ways to write plot, and Eggshells does have plot: It is the slow, light-handed, tender revelation of Vivian's background. This is done with such skill and love, with such compassion for the character, that some readers may miss it. But it is the way this information comes to the surface that makes this book become part of your heart.
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Reading Progress

August 30, 2015 – Shelved
August 30, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
September 15, 2015 – Started Reading
September 16, 2015 –
page 54
21.43% "Laughing till I'm crying. I'm going to try to read this very slowly so it will last. Thank you, Margaret Madden, if you're reading this, for reviewing this book!"
September 22, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Dolors (last edited Sep 22, 2015 11:31AM) (new)

Dolors It seems Zelda might have found an Irish companion whose wry sense of humor shines through her grim circumstances. I adore Ireland, blue is my favorite color and cherish your refreshingly good reviews. Thanks, Betsy.


Betsy Robinson Dolors wrote: "It seems Zelda might have found an Irish companion whose wry sense of humor shines through her grim circumstances. I adore Ireland, blue is my favorite color and cherish your refreshingly good revi..."

You detect what I don't say in words, Dolors. Yes, I couldn't wait to read this because of the similarities I sensed to Zelda McFigg. I love well-written stories with humor about people on the edges. Vivian in Eggshells is a very different character from Zelda, but definitely from a related writing muse. I just loved it!


Maureen Kalb Betsy, your example of the "blue" episode was a brilliant example of the author's wit and word command.I never laughed so hard reading a book such as Seashells. So engaging was the author's writing that I felt sad at the close of the book. Hope for a sequel.


Betsy Robinson Maureen Kalb wrote: "Betsy, your example of the "blue" episode was a brilliant example of the author's wit and word command.I never laughed so hard reading a book such as Seashells. So engaging was the author's writing..."

So glad to hear it, Maureen. I loved this book too and hope more people discover it. Thanks for your comment.


message 5: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Wonderful review, Betsy. glad to see you enjoyed this one so much.


Betsy Robinson Mike wrote: "Wonderful review, Betsy. glad to see you enjoyed this one so much."

Thanks, Mike. Wonderful book.


message 7: by Margitte (new)

Margitte What a great, compassionate review, Betsy. Perhaps we should create 'the Betsy genre' which corresponds with your own writing. A perfect fit!


Betsy Robinson Margitte wrote: "What a great, compassionate review, Betsy. Perhaps we should create 'the Betsy genre' which corresponds with your own writing. A perfect fit!"

What an angel you are, Margitte.


message 9: by Julie (new)

Julie I've never been to Ireland, either, Betsy. . . let's go!!


Betsy Robinson Julie wrote: "I've never been to Ireland, either, Betsy. . . let's go!!"

You're on, Julie!


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