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on 23 September 2004
Before I begin this review, I should say that I am a huge Coupland fan. When I saw his new book in a shop window, I had to get it straight away.
This book is similar in style to his later books - especially Girlfriend In A Coma, in that spectacular coincidences are dropped into the main characters life at various moments. Without giving anything away, some very strange events occur, but they are only made clear gradually, so that the reader is left trying to decide what on earth could have caused such an event. It is almost never what you expect.
However, where "Girlfriend" still had a sense of teen-agey angst about it, this book seems more about dealing with getting older. As far as I recall, this is the first book he has written entirely from a female perspective. The main theme of the book is loneliness. His writing style leaves me speechless sometimes - the ability to weave such poetry from the tiniest parts of everyday life, in a way that takes your breath away:
"We cripple our children by not telling them what loneliness is, all of its shades, and tones, and implications. When it clubs us on the head, usually just after we leave home, we're blind-sided. We have no idea what hit us. We think we're diseased, schizoid, bipolar, monstrous and lacking in dietary chromium, It takes us until thirty to figure out what sucked the joy form our youth, that made our brains shriek and burn on the inside, even while our exteriors made us seem as confident and bronzed as Qantas pilots. Loneliness."
But the book is far from depressing - the overall message of the book is distinctly optimistic, with a fair dash of the darkest humour:
"I have trouble with any meat whose name also describes what the meat used to do before it became meat"..."Hi - before I was sautéed in onions, I spent my life refining impurities from a cow's bloodstream".
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on 9 September 2004
The central theme of Douglas Coupland's novel is loneliness. It's main protagonist and narrator is Liz Dunn, a woman left on the shelf. The novel recounts life from childhood in the 1970s to the present, via a possible but slightly fantastical (as with many of the events in his work) plot twist that produces a son to change her life and (temporarily) relive her loneliness.
Liz, for much of the novel, is lonely and at pains to emphasise her plainness, but to the reader she remains warm and pitiless and witty. We feel much sympathy for her (perhaps this is also because of our own fears of being alone), but you feel she would balk at our pity and rarely feels sorry for herself. The narration is typical of a Coupland character, with believable use of language and reference for the narrator, and inspiring imagery.
As in Coupland's other work, the central character is supported by some wonderfully drawn supporting characters, most especially Liz' angrily determined and bothersome mother, and her son Jeremy, whose appearance lights both Liz's world and the reader's. The relationships between children and parents and siblings are strained but loving and eternal, as indeed is the case with most families.
The novel, as so many of his, is set in Vancouver, but I think that this Vancouver is largely incidental; the changes in location are not as important as changes in time, and the locations rather reflect this. Rome and Vienna symbolise the old and Vancouver the new. Indeed in this novel, time is a location, and the differences between the world of the protagonist's childhood and the 21st Century are acute.
The novel explores the difference between a 70s where no-one locked their door and a child could wander miles from home on her own without alrming her parents, and the fearful nature and hyper-security of the post-September 11 world.
Coupland's novel is set partly in the post September 11 world, and in some ways Coupland is preoccupied with that event (not least as he has a new one-man show called September 10, about the 90s and the world prior to those events). This would suggest that a seismic shift has taken place over the world in the three years since then, and this novel does reflect that.
Except once, this shift is not specifically expressed, but as with all his novels, modern life and technology (which as it has 'progressed' from one Coupland novel to his next over the past decade and a half, we see is moving at an awesome pace), impinges on the lives of the characters as with all of us; in computers and communication, transport, medicine, and the impact on everyday lives of people of the events of September 2001.
Some of Coupland's previous work has dealt with apocalyptic themes very overtly (most obviously in Girlfriend in a Coma and Hey Nostradamus, but also in the fear of the Bomb in Generation X and other works). What we have in this novel is a world after an apocalypse has occurred, and we find that life does go on, and while the world does change, people's fears and preoccupations continue.
Loneliness is the central theme of this novel, but also family and death and love and the search for acceptance. Coupland shows us a world in which much has changed, but in which these themes are timeless.
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on 9 March 2005
I have to agree with Lenininatutu(!) to a certain extent. Ages ago I read Girlfriend In A Coma and was blown away by it, it may have been the quickest I've read a book ever. I just loved it. Since then I tried Microserfs and Generation X but just couldn't get into them, much to my disappointment. Hey Nostrodamus was a different story (no pun intended), I loved it all the way to the end, when nothing really happened. Nothing was solved and I just felt let down. Eleanor Rigby was a lot more satisfying, I even had a bit of a cry. It's a really good story with my favourite kind of character - the ones that makes you question yourself. The farmers got on my nerves tho. I think my problem is that I just expect too much from Douglas since Girlfriend.
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Beginning with the era-defining Generation X, I've read almost all Douglas Coupland's books, greatly enjoying his quirky, sympathetic take on the human condition. However, I've been somewhat disappointed with the last few I picked up (specifically Miss Wyoming,All Families are Psychotic and JPod), which felt a little too formulaic here and there. Whilst all the standard traits - the discovery of hope and redemption in unlikely places, the introduction of unlikely coincidences that verge on magic realism, and a view of modern life that veers between amusement and horror - are present and correct in this story as well, they're blended together in a more rewarding way.

As the title suggests, this is a tale about loneliness, as crystallized in the life of Liz Dunn, the self-styled "loneliest girl in the world". She's the narrator here, with the gift for a memorable - even shocking - turn of phrase [e.g. (p139) "What if God exists but he doesn't really like people very much?"] that Coupland gives to his best characters. Associated with this are some startlingly apt insights - for example (p61):

"[T]hat's what family members are for. We crave them and need them not because we have so many shared experiences to talk about but because they know precisely which subjects to avoid."

And whilst you're nodding your head in agreement (or at least pausing in thoughtful consideration), Liz wastes no time getting into it in order to burnish your deepest fears about the subject of the story (p10):

"You're here. You're reading these words. Is this a coincidence? Maybe you think fate is only for others. Maybe you're ashamed to be reading about loneliness - maybe someone will catch you and then they'll know your secret stain. And then maybe you're not even very sure what loneliness is - that's common."

Maybe it is, but Liz tells her tale - by turns sad, funny and moving - in such an assured fashion that you'll know a lot more about it by the time you put this book down. Whether you want to or not is - of course - up to you, but I found the experience a greatly enriching one.
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on 20 December 2008
Well, Eleanor Rigby is a definite improvement on Girlfriend in a Coma. The characters are well-drawn and I did care about them: and there are plenty of witty Coupland-esque observations on modern life and some beautiful moments and turns of phrase. There's a lot about sight/blindness which is interesting, and the narrator is quirky and offbeat and all the things a narrator should be.

However, I found the moves through time only confused me, and I couldn't work out what (if any) purpose they served. The actual format of the novel itself is never explained, as it starts as a fairly traditional novel, but in the later stages it is strongly suggested that actually the narrator is writing this down like a sort of diary. I couldn't work out the function of this and thought it should have either been explained, or preferably left out altogether. In fact I started to wonder if it'd been done to justify the ending, which felt rushed, uncared for, and largely unnecessary. The word corny isn't quite appropriate, but it's not a million miles away.

This is the third Coupland novel I have read that I've found slightly unsettling (and not in a good way): they all opened well, but this only lulled me into a false sense of security as the novels never quite delivered. Too much insane "spirituality" stuff all too often comes across as both dull and unbelievable. And sometimes, I get the feeling that he writes what he thinks he should, rather than what's authentic to the characters, and meaningful to the reader.
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on 22 September 2004
After my disappointment with Miss Wyoming and Hey Nostradamus! I was quite wary of this new novel...
I shouldn't have been.
I don't know why i adore Douglas Coupland as much as i do, maybe it's because he manages to write about people you wouldn't usually think about, in an amazingly simple but beautiful way. Eleanor Rigby is a fine example of this.
I am not sure if Douglas Coupland will ever write as good a book as Generation X again, but i do know that as long as he keeps his wonderfully simple (yet also somehow complex at the same time) stories up, i will keep coming back for more.
i don't want to give anything of the plot away, so forgive me for not talking about the actual story too much! But, take my word for it - it's lovely.
Hey Nostradamus! had the potential to be a brilliant book but i am not sure he knew where he wanted it to go or even how he wanted it to get there... it came across as a very hard book to write and i would love to know how happy he was with the finished product.
Eleanor Rigby is simply a very good book, which i finished too quickly (a bad habit with good books!), but when i passed it on to my partner to read i did so with a very big smile and nothing but praise.
It's good to have Douglas Coupland back on form and making me grin.
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on 5 January 2006
Most of this book is shatteringly good. It portrays the loneliness of a single woman so well it was painful to read - the reality, and the bitter understanding of it, is amazingly constructed.
My only problem was with the ending - the unavoidable tragedy is so climactic, and so upsetting, that it would be hard for anything to follow, and I think that what does follow is underwhelming.
Having come to Coupland through Generation X, I couldn't believe how different this book was. It's astonishing and funny and bitter, and a testament to Cooupland's skill, because his main character is so very real.
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on 5 July 2005
Another great novel from Coupland taking on more life-changing events interspersed with small town American culture and just a smattering of fantasy. He tweaks some of those sensitive spots in all of us whilst reminding us of our fragility and potential for so much more. Just ripe for a movie contract I reckon (or maybe a home movie).
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Like Eleanor Rigby, Liz Dunn, an overweight, thirty-six-year-old woman, is lonely, living in an apartment which is not a home. While she is recuperating from oral surgery, Liz receives a surprising phone call from the police, summoning her to the hospital. A twenty-year-old man named Jeremy Buck has been picked up wearing mesh stockings and black lingerie and suffering from a drug overdose, and Liz's name is on his Medic Alert bracelet. When she meets him for the first time, he greets her as "Mom."
The novel shifts back and forth between 1997, when Liz first meets Jeremy Buck, and her earlier childhood and teen years, and then fast-forwards to 2004. It gives nothing away to say that Jeremy was obviously conceived on Liz's high school trip when she was sixteen, but she has no recollection of Jeremy's father and no awareness, for many months, that she could even be pregnant. After giving birth during a bout of "indigestion," Liz gives the baby up for adoption, until he finds her twenty years later.
Through this framework, "Generation X" author Douglas Coupland examines the nature of family life and the search for meaning. We know from the outset that Jeremy has multiple sclerosis, but he does not look to religion to provide solace or answers. Instead, he has visions, usually about farm families awaiting the end of the world, visions which bear striking resemblances to some of the issues Liz faces. As Jeremy's MS progresses, his desire to find meaning grows. "Death without the possibility of changing the world was the same as a life that never was," he believes, and he intends to live it as well as he can--with Liz.
Witty and often mordantly funny, the novel develops an edge of satire at the same time that it strives to be emotionally stirring. When Liz goes to Europe to help with a police investigation, seven years later, a comedy of errors ensues, taking the novel further into the realm of absurdity and farce. Although the novel often discusses issues of death and other Gen X concerns, the author uses a consistently light touch, keeping the tone upbeat and avoiding the details of Jeremy's final decline. The novel is not complex, nor is it subtle, with the parallels between Jeremy's visions and Liz's life fully explained by the author. Sparkling dialogue and a conclusion which carries the themes to their absurd conclusions, keep the reader going, and the novel ultimately answers the big questions in the song for which it is named--"Where to we all come from?...Where do we all belong?" Mary Whipple
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on 9 November 2004
I am a huge fan of Coupland's but must admit to having been a little disappointed in his work since Miss Wyoming ( incidentally, a criminally-neglected book itself in my opinion). This however is a return to form with a vengence - easily the best new novel I have read this year.
If you like your novels to ask big questions but not to preach, this is one for you.
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