Every now and again a book comes into your life that has such a profound effect, that reaches deep into your soul and changes you for the better. Eleanor Oliphant is such a book. I’m actually finding it difficult to find adequate words for my thoughts and emotions about this debut novel, so bear with me.
Eleanor is a woman in her thirties, she has crafted a carefully ordered life for herself without genuine human connection. She is a survivor of severe childhood trauma, which we learn more about as the story develops; this trauma has locked so many doors in Eleanor’s emotional and mental development. She is an outsider and doesn’t understand society’s rules; she is one of the loneliest characters I have ever come across. This all sounds very bleak and parts of the story are so very sad but, at the same time, this is the story of how Eleanor learns to open herself up to the world, to find meaning in her life and to allow love in. It is a story of so much courage as she tries to navigate a world, which feels alien to her and tries to come to terms with the dark experiences of her past.
I’ve seen Eleanor Oliphant marketed as a ‘funny book full of humour’. I agree that there are many such brilliant moments as Eleanor’s perspective is so honest, her observations delightfully plain speaking and often childlike in honesty. There is a wonderful section where she is on a quest to look more socially acceptable, to look like the other women she sees as being normal. Her bewildered observations when she has her nails done and when she wants to buy trendy clothes in a department store, really did make me laugh, largely because I can totally identify with the bewilderment! When having makeup applied, the beautician asks her whether she likes a smoky eye look, Eleanor replies that she doesn’t like anything to do with smoking. When asked whether she likes the finished effect, she say in all seriousness,
“I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon. It’s charming!”
However, selling it primarily as a comedy doesn’t sit right with me. I went into reading this book not knowing a lot about it but having the expectation of a Bridget Jones style narrative – this doesn’t begin to do Honeyman’s writing justice. Eleanor drinks two bottles of vodka at the weekend to make time pass quickly as there is nothing and nobody to fill the days when she is not working. Her mind becomes so dark at one point that she doesn’t know if life is worth living. This darkness is so well written, her mental health incredibly sensitively explored. I cried. Lots.
Another thing I absolutely loved, is how Eleanor has moments of deep understanding, precisely because she doesn’t conform to what society expects; she doesn’t play by the social rules. For example, there is a scene in a café, where she is waiting for the rather wonderful Raymond, her first real friend. She attempts general conversation with a member of café staff and finds out he is leaving his job as his wife is terminally ill. Instead of shying away, finding a polite response, she tells him that she understands he would rather spend the short time left with his dying wife rather than serving random strangers.
The friendships Eleanor develops are just so very lovely in their honesty and acceptance. This book shouts from the rooftops that there are good people out there and I love it for that. I shan’t say much more as they are for you to discover (but I hope you love Raymond as much as I do!) I will mention the cat that comes into her life though – because, you know, me and cats! Eleanor takes in this traumatised, scrappy little cat and allows her to become the centre of her long empty life. There is a special, tender moment when they first meet, remarkably, Eleanor has so much love to give:
‘I held her like a baby, close against my chest, and felt, rather than heard, her deep, sonorous purring. Oh, the warm weight of her! I buried my faced in what remained of her fur and felt her gently turn her head towards me as she gently sniffed my hairline.’
I read Eleanor Oliphant just before reading Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie (see my review here) and these two books together have played a huge part in restoring my hope in humanity. They have both reminded me how those small acts of everyday kindness can change someone’s world and that we humans are capable of so much compassion, care and indeed love, if we only put our minds to it.