Eileen is the story of a 24-year-old woman who lives with her alcoholic father, a retired police officer, works by day as a clerk in a prison for boys, and doesn’t do much else. She went to college, but during her second year her mother got sick and she came home to care for her until her death. Ever since then, she’s been stuck in her childhood home, obsessing over her bodily functions, reading National Geographic magazine, and driving around with the windows down in a beat-up old car whose exhaust backs up.
When Frances wrote briefly about Eileen, she also blogged about Hot Milk, noting that she “loved [the latter] for some of the same reasons,” so I went into Eileen expecting to see similarities. There are some, of course, but a huge difference stood out: the narrator. While Hot Milk is narrated by Sofia in real time, Eileen is narrated by Eileen as an old woman.
So while there are some definite parallels between the characters of Sofia and Eileen in their 20s, those characters are treated very differently by their respective narrators. Sofia has no different perspective as a narrator than as a character. Eileen, though, judges her young self in all sorts of ways as she describes the events of her 25th Christmas. Eileen the narrator also presents her judgments of many of the other characters in the novel, describing both how she felt and what she thought about them at the time as well as her assessment now, decades older and wiser.
Her assessment of herself is critical, but not overly so. She gives herself a pass on many things, generally reasonably. But mostly she’s willing to laugh at her young self, or at least willing to see that self’s problems as small, to see that self as naive and sheltered still, even after a messy childhood and dysfunctional young adulthood.
This, in turn, makes her older self appear much more psychologically healthy. We don’t know how Eileen got out of X-ville, as she calls her hometown, but we know she got out and we know she’s a lot less neurotic, a lot more normal now—even if she’s not happy, per se, and even if we know she lives alone and not with a husband or children or grandchildren.
And this perspective also gives Eileen most of its narrative interest, which is in the suspense built by the tension between what the reader knows so far about 24-year-old Eileen and what the reader knows about Eileen 50 years later. When the narrator explains that she is describing “[m]y last days as that angry little Eileen,” it’s clear something is going to happen—but what? When she explains that “in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s,” the reader’s mind is bound to go straight to the most lurid of possibilities. But the action itself is slow, and one by one narrator-Eileen eliminates various possibilities. We find out she believes her older sister is still alive, that she only assumes her father is dead by now, that her coworker Rebecca, who has apparently changed Eileen’s life dramatically, has also not been killed at Eileen’s hands. What’s left?
Of course, something is left, and I’ll say only that it was a genuine surprise for me.