Vivian lives alone in the city of Dublin, inhabiting her great-aunt’s house after said great-aunt’s death. The house is fusty, crowded, and has too many chairs. But it suits Vivian who is what we might call “an odd duck”. Very soon after the book opens we watch Vivian divide some of her aunt’s ashes into envelopes to be addressed and sent to twenty-two friends from her aunt’s address book. Preferring the alphabetical symmetry of twenty-six, Vivian also chooses four strangers’ addresses from the phone book.
Each day Vivian walks from her house (avoiding her gossipy neighbours) and charts a route around Dublin. She interacts very little with others and the interactions she does have with strangers are uncomfortable and confused. Vivian is searching for a portal, an entry into another world. Vivian believes she is a changeling and is searching for the way back to her true home. At one point she decides she wants a friend named Penelope and so advertises for one (by putting a notice up on a tree). It doesn’t take long for her to make a Penelope friend and the two women have several encounters together.
The book’s blurb seems to suggest that this friendship with Penelope is the plot line of the novel but that actually happens quite early one and with relatively little fanfare. Penelope is, predictably, also odd but in a different way than Vivian. This helps the two women to accept each others’ quirks but doesn’t enable them to really help each other in any way.
There really is very little plot here. We follow Vivian around Dublin and, with her as our first person narrator, we see the world in a slightly new way. Vivian notices things and is both very observant and extremely obtuse. Her interactions with her sister (also named Vivian) are skin-crawlingly uncomfortable to read because our Vivian has no idea how others perceive her. Her world makes sense to her but she is, in many ways, barely functioning within our world.
She is charming in many ways; I particularly enjoyed all the lists she kept – items at a museum, types of cake, names of butterflies – she enjoys words and takes notice of the ways words fit together. She hides money in the pockets of sweaters at a thrift store in order to brighten a strangers’ day. She writes mysterious notes in books before she gives them away in order to create a story that she will not be part of. And although I’m not familiar with the city of Dublin, through Vivian, Caitriona Lally brings the city to life in a way that I imagine is wonderful for anyone who has spent time there.
In the end, I was left wanting more. I had hoped for a climax or a conclusion because that is what we hope for from novels. Yet, I can’t help but feel that Lally’s choice to not create a happy ending (or even an ending) for Vivian is the most honest one. There have been several of these quirky, maybe-on-the-spectrum, type narrators in books in the past few years (Eileen and Eleanor Oliphant both came to mind) These stories and characters are often presented as quirky and funny but there’s none of that with Vivian. Vivian isn’t funny. Vivian is clearly a woman on the fringe of society who is barely getting by. Who is missing out on companionship and support and whose problems aren’t solved at the end of book. And sadly, this is the truth for many people like Vivian. I wanted a happy ending because that’s what I wanted for Vivian but by refusing to satisfy that desire, Lally has actually created a more powerful story.