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Book Review: Invisible Ellen

By (May 27, 2014) No Comment

Invisible Elleninvisible ellen cover

by Shari Shattuck

Putnam, 2014


Beautiful actress and former soap opera star Shari Shattuck has written a number of books, and her latest, Invisible Ellen, is wonderfully entertaining. Its plot focuses on 24-year-old Ellen, who’s grossly overweight and has a vivid scar on her face, who’s been raised in a series of dismal foster homes and now works the night shift at Costco. She lives alone with her cat, taking obsessive notes on the comings and goings of all her neighbors, and she prides herself on her invisibility.

That invisibility is temporarily shattered one day when Ellen sees a young blind woman having her purse stolen on the sidewalk. Impulsively, Ellen intervenes and foils the robbery – thereby befriending the young woman, Temerity, whose personality is the exact opposite of Ellen’s: Temerity is outspoken, outgoing, ebullient in every way. She and her brother Justice (a hottie who, naturally, cares only about the inner beauty of the young women he encounters, even though no real-life hottie has ever cared about such a thing or ever will) become fascinated with Ellen, and despite herself, she becomes fascinated with them as well, approaching Temerity soon after their initial encounter:

“This is, uh, Ellen. We, uh, met last night. I don’t know if you remember me.”

“If I remember you? Two muggers attacked me, stole my bag, you Jackie-Channed them mofos and returned my stuff. I’m blind – I don’t have amnesia. That kind of thing sticks with you.”

As the three grow more comfortable talking with each other, Justice and Temerity try to figure out the ways Ellen stays hidden in plain sight for so much of her life:

Justice studied Ellen. “Why do you think I can see you?”

“What Temerity said, maybe,” Ellen ventured.

“You know what I think?” He regarded her seriously and she couldn’t detect any mockery in his voice. “I think I can see you because my sister told me about you, and so I knew you were here.”

“I guess,” Ellen agreed, feeling completely baffled by the strange night, the unusual people, the unaccustomed acceptance. Nothing was normal, and she was drifting. She needed mooring, the stabilizing ballast of carbohydrates and the hull of solitude.

“Does it make a difference if you want people to see you?” Justice asked. “Can you choose?”

Ellen looked up at him hesitantly with one eye. “Kind of,” she said. “I mean, if I really make the effort, talk first, you know, like when I have to buy something. Then, people don’t look at me much, but they respond, usually Not always,” she said, thinking of several situations at stores or markets where she had waited to be next, to be noticed, or just to pay, for so long that she had finally given up and left. “But not if I don’t want them to.”

“How does that work?” he asked simply.

Ellen shrugged. “I just, you know, go fuzzy, kind of.”

The peculiarly tentative tone of this writing arises from the fact that Shari Shattuck isn’t describing the nature of Ellen’s invisibility as it occurs in her imagination – she’s describing the nature of Ellen’s invisibility as it occurs in the CGI special effects of a movie adaptation of Invisible Ellen. shari shattuck 2This second-hand description approach is a hard-and-fast hallmark of Young Adult fiction, and it’s one of the many giveaways that because Penguin’s marketing of this book as adult fiction, it’s likely you’re going to find it in the wrong section of the bookstore.

It’s an odd choice – after all, YA is booming, and since the Western reading public grows both dumber and lazier with every passing year, the sub-genre’s future is bright. But fortunately, it’s also a relatively harmless choice in this case. YA or no YA, Invisible Ellen is smartly enough done so that pretty much anybody picking it up and seeking an hour’s delightful story won’t be disappointed. Shattuck’s dialogue ripples along, and her native optimism shines through all her characters – and that can be refreshing after a long winter of Norwegian angst.

That lilt of upbeat outlook is another hallmark of the YA sub-genre, and it’s almost always the requisite hottie who voices the need for it. Justice, a young anthropologist, does the honors here:

“Okay, look at it this way. Human beings developed as tribes, each member had his or her role and was necessary for the survival and well-being of the whole. That is how we managed to evolve so far. But we don’t give much thought to the common good anymore. It’s every man for himself, and on a really basic survival level, that’s unnatural. Therefore, people feel unfulfilled, but they don’t know why.”

Invisible Ellen is a simple, touching story about a resolute outcast finding a welcome where she least expects it. The book is just as professionally done as all Shattuck’s earlier works, but it’s a noticeable step forward in its narrative clarity and, well, happiness. I’d be more comfortable if it were in the YA section where it belongs (I’d also be more comfortable if every reader who encounters it recognized that it belonged there), but it’s a welcome little parable wherever it’s found.