Eleanor Oliphant is a peculiar woman. She has little to no social skills, she speaks so precisely that it borders on absurd, and she is completely detached from emotion. Around her thirtieth birthday, life begins to change. She and a coworker witness an elderly man fall on the street, and they help him get medical help. Slowly, Eleanor’s life is penetrated by Other People, which leads to penetration by Emotion.
Let me start by saying what this book isn’t: This is not a story of “awkward woman meets man and he/love saves her.” This is instead a story of a woman who has suffered terrible traumas in childhood and has learned to cope in the only way she knows how. All her awkwardness and quirks stem from these coping mechanisms, the childhood traumas, and the dysfunctional way she grew up. Eleanor was abused terribly, both physically and emotionally (particularly the latter), until the age of ten, when she entered the care system. These are not spoilers – all this information comes out in the first chapters.
The story is more than just the aftermath of a horrendous childhood, though. Yes, there is horror here, but ultimately, this is a book of hope. Eleanor’s coworker, Raymond, is a very kind person who, despite recognizing that Eleanor is extremely unusual, treats her with courtesy and friendliness. The elderly man they save, Sammy, is gregarious and grateful, and essentially treats his two rescuers as part of his family now. Through these two new people in Eleanor’s life, plus a few personal projects she’s undertaken, Eleanor learns a bit more about what it means to truly interact with others. This isn’t a story of someone saving her, but of a woman who learns that small acts of kindness (performed toward her and by her) are the glue that ties a person to community and friendship.
In tone, the book reminded me very strongly of two others I’ve read. The first is Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, in that Eleanor tends to see her own viewpoint as normal when it is so clearly not (to the reader, at least!). The second was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, in the way that several isolated people come to take care of each other despite each of their quirks and oddities. It was just as well written as both of those books, and added something special of its own. The setting (Glasgow) was perfectly painted, the pacing was spot-on, and Eleanor’s transformation was very realistic – she grows and learns, but she’s still awkward and oblivious and accidentally rude in her interactions with others. The novel took some painful topics – abuse, alcoholism, severe depression, therapy, among others – and explored them with grace and care.
Others have been raving about this book since it published last year. I admit, this is not a book I ever thought I’d read. I didn’t know much about it, and had somehow gotten the impression that it was a contemporary YA novel. I picked it up now solely because one of my book clubs was reading it. Sometimes fate just intervenes, I suppose. This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time, and definitely an early contender for 2018 favorites for me. I read it twice back to back, actually, due to some unexpected revelations that made me rethink the earlier parts of the novel, and both reads were wonderful. The audio narrator, Cathleen McCarron, did an absolutely perfect rendition, and made the novel that much more real and present for me. All around, the experience was marvelous, and I highly recommend this book. It is totally worth all the hype and praise that it has received.