Word of mouth, including from you wonderful Cannonballers, finally got me to read this book. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I have zero regrets.
Eleanor Oliphant is an odd duck. She’s worked at a low-level job for years without any ambitions of change. She lives alone, has no friends, and has a dearth of social skills, and from early on in the novel we become aware that she has a complicated history. All of her days are the same: work, go home and read or watch TV, go to bed, and repeat. On Wednesdays she talks on the phone to her mother who we are given to understand is in some kind of facility – prison or mental ward. On weekends she fills her time by drinking and sleeping.
Things begin to change when Eleanor has a problem with her work computer and meets Raymond, the IT guy. Soon after they meet Sammy, and Eleanor’s interactions with these men and their families starts to change her life and her view of herself. And throughout the novel, the mystery of Eleanor’s past is revealed.
I will say that this novel was darker than I expected. I had been hearing about the book for a long time and had added it to my TBR list quite a while ago, so by the time I got to it, I didn’t recall what the reviews had said. Frankly, I was expecting chick lit (not meant derogatorily, I enjoy the genre). Even the cover, between the image and the font for the words “a novel,” seems to imply a somewhat light-hearted read. But it’s not. There is a lot of abuse in Eleanor’s past, and we’re told early on that she is a product of rape. I also did not find the book nearly as funny as many readers seem to. It’s been described as “funny,” “wacky,” “hilarious,” and “heartbreaking.” I agree with that last adjective. Because Eleanor lacks social skills, is quite bright, and doesn’t really bother with a brain-to-mouth filter (and probably isn’t aware that she should bother with one), she says a lot of things that other characters find off-putting. These comments, and some of the things she thinks, are presumably what appeal to the readers who find her to be charmingly quirky. And there are times that I too found these things amusing. However, I generally found it more on the heartbreaking side of the continuum because it’s so clear to the reader that what Eleanor thinks is happening is very different from what others are perceiving. For example, when a social worker comes to check on her, Eleanor says that she doesn’t look like a social worker. The social worker doesn’t respond – I assume because she is taken aback or just doesn’t know what to say to a comment like that. Eleanor narrates the moment this way: “She stared at me but said nothing. Not again! In every walk of life, I encounter people with underdeveloped social skills with alarming frequency. Why is it that client-facing jobs hold such allure for misanthropes?” (p. 44) Eleanor know enough to understand that someone in that kind of job needs to have good social skills, but is completely unaware that in this situation (as in many others) she is the one lacking the skills. This, by the way, makes her quite an unreliable narrator.
Despite what the above paragraph may imply, this was an excellent book and one that I expect I will re-read. Eleanor’s past unfolds at a good pace and with a lot of hints that give readers an idea of what happened before we’re actually told the official version. There’s a bit of a twist at the end but it didn’t feel like a gimmick (and looking back, there’s at least one clue that foreshadows it). Eleanor is prickly and smart and inspires empathy in the reader. I also appreciated Honeyman’s use of language. Eleanor generally narrates with straightforward, practical language, but when she thinks about the person she has a crush on, her narration becomes more imaginative and figurative. I 100% recommend it.