I finished this book several weeks ago and have had to let it simmer before I could write my review. I enjoyed it very much, even from the earliest pages, but I’ve been struggling with some of the feelings it evoked. Although, not in the ways you might expect if you’ve read the novel.
As you can probably guess from the title, Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine. Lonely, alcoholic, and lacking any semblance of social grace, Eleanor does office work for a graphic design firm and has, quite literally, zero friends. It’s not hard to see why, because she is. . .well, odd. She’s intelligent but smug, judging her fellow office workers for consistently failing to meet her standards. She’s dismissive of social norms and doesn’t seem to understand typical human interactions. She sees a musician on stage at a show and decides spontaneously that he is the love of her life. The only reason we, as readers, like Eleanor is because we have a view into her inner monologue, which is often hilarious. We also know something that none of the other characters know: she had an extremely traumatic childhood with an abusive mother, with whom Eleanor speaks every Wednesday for her weekly dose of debasement.
Eleanor Oliphant is a hot mess.
Eleanor would probably continue to be a hot mess if not for a chance encounter with her company’s IT guy, Ray. Oblivious to Eleanor’s disdain, Ray walks with her, making small talk, and they see an elderly man named Sammy collapse on the street. At Ray’s insistence, they call an ambulance and accompany Sammy to the hospital until his family can be notified. Suddenly Eleanor has multiple acquaintances who want to interact with her outside her normal 9-5, Monday through Friday working hours. It puts a real kink in her nonexistent social life.
This story is primarily about loneliness and survival. Eleanor has insulated herself against pain by simply not caring what anyone thinks. “I wasn’t good at pretending, that was the thing. . . . But, by careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often built on pretending just a little. Popular people sometimes have to laugh at things they don’t find very funny, do things they don’t particularly want to do, with people whose company they don’t particularly enjoy. Not me. I had decided, years ago, that if the choice was between that or flying solo, then I’d fly solo. It was safer that way.”
Unless this is the first novel you have ever read, you can probably surmise that things are going to get worse for Eleanor before they get better, and that may be a source of discomfort for some readers. Yet the part that got under my skin, the thing that’s kept me pondering this novel for these past few weeks, is the character of Ray.
I don’t want to suggest that Ray is the hero of the story; he’s not, and Eleanor has to face her own demons and confront her own history. But what struck me is that Ray exhibits an unqualified kindness towards our peculiar heroine to which all of us should aspire. He pursues her friendship without agenda, calling her a pal when everyone else considers her a weirdo. It’s easy to be kind to people who are “normal,” but the strange ones? I know I have failed that test on many occasions. While some of Eleanor’s coworkers mock her (barely) behind her back, not all of them are cruel. Lack of cruelty may get you a place on the “nice” list, but being nice and being kind are not the same.
Ray doesn’t rescue Eleanor; nevertheless, without him taking on the thankless task of being Eleanor’s friend, it’s unlikely that she would have been able to break free from her cycle of solitude.