This book has been sitting in my ‘To Read’ Amazon Wishlist for around a year, and is another book on my Goodreads 2018 challenge. View my progress here! (NOTE: review contains spoilers and trigger warnings).
Eleanor Oliphant is a bit of an oddball who tends to say what she thinks without consideration of the repercussions, and has unintentionally alienated herself from her peers. She’s been stuck in the same job for nine years, wears the same clothes daily and has the same routine each day. Despite thinking nothing is missing from her well- organised life, she’s definitely stuck in a rut.
Until one rare night out results in her meeting the love of her life, Johnnie Lomond, the singer of a local indie rock band. Who doesn’t even know she exists. As she prepares herself for the meeting of a lifetime with the object of her affection and navigates the muddy waters of obsessive and unrequited love, a chance encounter with an injured elderly man strikes up a friendship with Raymond who works in her office. Suddenly, Eleanor’s well organised life ventures into unknown territories as she realises that, with Raymond’s help, she can break the self-destructive cycle she’s stuck in and finally begin to live rather than simply exist.
Despite some misgivings about the ending (which I’ll come onto later) for the most I enjoyed reading and getting to know Eleanor and all her quirks. This is a typical ‘coming of age’ novel in the sense that we really see the growth and development of Eleanor’s character. Early on, we see the effects that loneliness has had on her; the trip to Tesco on a Friday for the same pizza and two bottles of vodka so she spends the weekend permanently drunk, then back to work on Monday after not seeing a soul for the whole weekend. The bare minimal contact with those in her office who make cruel jokes at her expense (of which she only partially understands), to the weekly phone calls from ‘Mummy’ that Eleanor dislikes yet cannot avoid.
We as readers can see the effects years of abuse have had on her, and know that more is going on just below the surface. Her face is badly scarred from a childhood trauma she refuses to discuss, bi-annual welfare checks as a result of a lifetime in care, and the scars from an abusive relationship are gradually revealed as the novel progresses, and despite her reassurances that she is ‘fine’ we can see the disconnect from her reality and this serves to deepen our attachment to the character. Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine merely surviving, but in no way is she living. And to a certain extent I think she knows this.
Whilst my life and Eleanor’s draw no parallel – I have survived neither a fire or an abusive relationship – one thing that we did have in common was that sense of loneliness felt when you feel at odds to everyone else, or feel that overwhelming ache that cannot be named nor filled. And I think that this is something that everyone can on some level understand. The way she fills the emotional void with books, vodka and routine is something that, for lonely people, become a source of comfort as familiarity makes up for the lack of human companionship and intimacy. Eleanor’s social ineptness first seems like it stems from her contempt of others; she is cold and devoid of emotion, yet you come to understand that her behaviour is a direct result of being starved from any meaningful relationships in her life, and is there for protection.
By the end I felt myself rooting for her. Not because I wanted her to succeed in her unrequited love, but because I couldn’t bear to see her humiliated yet again. Usually with novels of this calibre you see the heroine making some truly spectacular blunders on that road to self discovery, both self depreciating and humiliating, but coming out stronger on the other side. With Eleanor you have someone who is truly broken yet does not see it; watching her break through those self imposed barriers whilst she reinvents and rediscovers her life is part of the charm of the novel. The way she forms friendships, changes her appearance and pushes herself outside that bubble she’s formed to protect takes real courage, and you can’t help but wish her well.
Without giving away the ending, I have to admit I wasn’t overly keen purely because I felt it was a little rushed. Whilst I didn’t see the twist coming, I don’t think it was handled with the same finesse that was displayed on the build up to it and as a result I was left a little wanting. Perhaps on a second read I might enjoy the subtleties leading up to it and may appreciate it more.
One thing that I was pleased with about it is that it ends with Eleanor being rescued – not by love or romance – but companionship. I appreciated that she gets herself a cat rather than a boyfriend, and that Raymond becomes a truly wonderful friend as opposed to a lover. I love the fact that after being alone for so long, her ‘rescue’ comes from friendship which makes her journey all the more heartwarming, and so much more satisfying knowing that she’ll be ok.