Eleanor Oliphant is what we would politely describe as quirky. She lives a fairly isolated lifestyle, seeing no friends or relatives. She lives alone in a flat where she was placed by Social Services after leaving the care system. She is a creature of habit, wearing identical clothes each day, and following habitual daily and weekly routines. She works, in the accounts department of a design company, but her lowly position seems out of kilter with her high intelligence. There is nothing especially remarkable about her quirkiness (apart from the fact that she drinks two bottles of vodka every weekend), but her habits mark her out from the usual crowd. In particular she eschews social interaction, is cool, often hostile, to her co-workers, looking down on them, never wears make up or gets her hair cut. She appears to others as someone who doesn’t make an effort, but through Eleanor’s eyes we observe some of the absurdities of ‘normal’ life and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments, for example, when Eleanor goes for a makeover at the department store.
Eleanor communicates poorly with others, being rather too literal and pedantic for most people to tolerate and is therefore unable to form effective relationships. At first, she is not an easy character to love, except that we as readers know a couple of things about her that her workmates do not, and which make us more sympathetic to her. Firstly, we know she drinks herself into oblivion at the weekends: as a reader we are bound to ask what she is trying to escape from. Second, there is Eleanor’s mother, with whom she speaks every Wednesday evening; “Mummy” is controlling, manipulative, cruel, nasty. Eleanor is an adult and yet there is something disturbing about the way she always refers to her parent as a child would (never ‘Mum’ or ‘my mother’). The fact that Eleanor also receives regular monitoring visits from social workers tells us that there is something dark in Eleanor’s past that has contributed to her present quirkiness, but we are not told what.
Two incidents in Eleanor’s life set off a cascade of events that will alter her life immeasurably. First, she encounters and develops a teenage-like crush on a musician. He is the lead singer in a band, well-known in the Glasgow area, lives locally and Eleanor has a remote connection with him as he attended school with a work colleague’s brother. Eleanor decides that the musician is the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with. She fantasises about a romance with him and ultimately marriage. Emboldened by conversations with Mummy, who is all in favour of “the project” (whilst also questioning Eleanor’s worth), she tasks herself with contriving to meet him, including visiting his apartment block, and sets about buying new clothes and improving her appearance, to bring herself up to the standard she anticipates he would expect from a partner.
The second incident is the collapse of an elderly man in the street. The old man is immediately attended to by Raymond, not a co-worker but someone she recognises as working in the same building, and he involves Eleanor and commands her help. Between them, Eleanor and Raymond manage to give the man first aid and call an ambulance. After this, Raymond draws Eleanor into an unplanned friendship. It doesn’t seem to be something that either of them is seeking, particularly. Indeed at first Eleanor is very cool towards Raymond, looking down upon his smoking, his eating habits, his text-speak and what she sees as his lazy dressing habits. But he is warm and patient with her and the friendship evolves. Through Raymond, Eleanor gets a glimpse of what ‘normal’ life and ‘normal’ family relationships can be, with all their faults.
The action takes place over a few months and the pace is measured and authentic. It is ultimately a novel about mental illness, triggered by trauma in Eleanor’s case, and as the story unfolds, and we learn more about Eleanor’s past, so her present, tightly ordered life, held together so flimsily by a set of rigid habits, begins to fall apart. This unravelling may be painful for some readers. The novel echoes that tendency we all have to say we’re ‘fine’ even when we’re not, and Eleanor learns, the hard way, what ‘fine’ means, and how to use that word honestly on her path to healing. There are some dark moments but there is also humour, particularly in the drawing of Eleanor’s character. I found myself laughing both with her and at her, which was, I must confess uncomfortable in the context of later revelations, and caused me to reflect on how we as a society react to those who do not present with an ‘average’ or ‘easily-fit-innable’ personality.
This is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and it is a stunning achievement. A thoroughly enjoyable read. In an era where poor mental health, social isolation and dysfunctional relationships seem to have reached epidemic proportions, this novel is both an examination of one person’s particular circumstances and an antidote. Highly recommended.
Have you read this book? What did you think?
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