A Rare Thing

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

Grade: A-

I could tell from the first paragraph of Eggshells that author Caitriona Lally had a knack for wordplay and for making wonderful observations about everyday things. It’s what drew me to the book. It’s also what kept me reading during the occasional rough patch.

The main character of Eggshells is Vivian. She was abused as a child, and now she believes she is a changeling. She wanders the streets of Dublin, looking for a portal back to the fairy realm. Vivian has a sister, also named Vivian, who doesn’t want to have much contact with her. Friendless and clueless about how to make social connections, Vivian puts out an advertisement asking specifically for a friend named Penelope. And a Penelope answers!

That’s an interesting start to a novel but, as I mentioned, there are some rough patches along the way. Some of Vivian’s encounters with people are strange and not very believable. Vivian can be off-putting, and she spends a lot of time (too much, IMHO) just wandering around and making lists. But, if you can sympathize with Vivian’s desire to find magic, understand her yearning and her loneliness, then she’s endearing and worth following around the streets of Dublin, even if she doesn’t do much.

Another minor point that some reviewers complain about is that it’s never explained why Vivian’s sister is also named Vivian. Our Vivian deliberately avoids seeing, hearing, or thinking about things that upset her. That means a lot of details about Vivian’s and Penelope’s lives are kept from us. Remembering that Vivian is not entirely sane, an easy explanation for the sister’s name is that sister Vivian doesn’t actually exist. Perhaps there was an older sister who died in childhood, or maybe Vivian just always wanted a sibling and decided to make one up. There’s absolutely no evidence aside from Vivian’s state of mind to support my theory, because the sister appears in several scenes. Still, it makes sense that she’s an idealized, alternative persona that our Vivian has invented for herself. She represents the “normal” life that our Vivian thinks she ought to have had.

Along the way Vivian muses on a great many topics, often language-related, and these were my favorite parts of the book. Here is one example.

“mischief” should always be spelt with a lower case “m”–it seems more mischievous than its sensible big sister, upper case “M.” And “mumps” should never be capitalised, but “Measles,” its spottier cousin, should. “Rubella” works either way. We should be allowed to choose when to use lower and upper case letters; having to use a capital letter at the start of a sentence is like saying the firstborn son gets all the money, no matter how vile he is. Some words should be spelt entirely in capital letters: TORRENTIAL, BELLOWS, RIPPED, FLED, GLEEFUL.

If I were grading based purely on the story and characters, then I would give it a B+, meaning that I liked the book but not necessarily enough to read it again. I wanted to give credit to the author for her inventiveness, though, so I raised the grade to an A-. I feel like I could open this book to any page and find something that I’d enjoy reading. In fact, I tried doing exactly that. I opened the book to a random page, found something interesting, and was immediately drawn back in. That is a rare thing!

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