Synopsis: Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live.
She leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself.
Author: Gail Honeyman
It was the synopsis of this book that really drew me in. A story about routine and loneliness and knowing how to survive. It spoke to me. I could relate to this book already without having read further than the blurb at the back. A strict structure in life and loneliness are some things that I’m all too familiar with and so I was quite excited to have a book that I already felt connected to on a deeply personal level.
The story is about Eleanor Oliphant, a woman who has just reached her thirtieth birthday, and who has worked in the same job for almost a decade, who eats the same meal, who buys the same bottles of alcohol on the weekend, who is socially awkward and doesn’t understand social cues, and who decides she’s in love with a man she has never met before. Then, a problem with her work computer has Eleanor meeting Raymond Gibbons, who works in IT and is assigned to fix her computer, and this chance encounter turns Eleanor’s world upside down, breaking down the walls she’s built around herself, and leading her – and you – on a journey of self-discovery.
I started reading and I was instantly hooked – I needed to know more. Then, the more I was reading about Eleanor, the more I started to despise her. She was rude and ignorant and absolutely everything that I hate in a character – and a person. There’s one scene where she’s had her nails done and, as a response to being asked if she would like a follow up appointment, she commented that she could do a better job herself at home and for free. That comment irked me as someone who has worked in retail and dealt with rude, patronising, and ignorant customers before. Yet the further along in the book I got, the more character development Eleanor goes through. Towards the end, I was rooting for her and had begun to feel proud of the progress she had made.
One of the first things you find out about Eleanor is that she has a scar on her face, and, that when she went for her job interview some ten years previously, she had a broken arm and a black eye. The reason for these are not explained straight away. Honeyman knew how to captivate her audience and did so in a way that had you not only wanting to know more, but had you needing to know more. There was a plot twist at the end of the book that had me reading until the very early hours of the morning because I couldn’t put it down without knowing the answers to all the burning questions in my head – and, boy, was it a plot twist.
You discover early on that Eleanor has been alone for a long time. Aside from a phone call from her ‘Mummy’ every Wednesday evening at the same time, Eleanor has no one else in her life. Eleanor tells herself that she’s fine, but under the surface she is anything but. Her mother, who she never sees in person due to her being institutionalized, is cruel and never misses an opportunity to put Eleanor down and destroy her self-confidence until it’s nothing but a pile of ashes on the floor. It’s because of her mother that Eleanor has decided to pursue the man she claims to be in love with despite having never met him in person before. She calls it her ‘project’ and it pleases her mother greatly. While Eleanor claims to be ‘completely fine’, where her mother is concerned she is anything but.
Early into the book, Eleanor meets Raymond, who, as mentioned above, is assigned to fix her work computer. Eleanor bumps into Ray in the hallway on her way out of work one evening, something which displeases her as she had tried to time her departure from work to avoid everyone and their small talk. Eleanor and Raymond suddenly find themselves bonded together through their good deed of saving a man who had collapsed in the street. From there on, Eleanor struck up a friendship with Raymond, albeit against her will. What I absolutely loved about their friendship was how it never felt forced. If you work for the same company, in the same building, then it’s not uncommon for you to bump into one another. They eventually become quite good friends, with them having lunch together, attending a couple of parties together, and even visiting Raymond’s mother together. There was an opportunity for Honeyman to turn their friendship into a fully fledged relationship, but I’m more than glad that they didn’t. It was a breath of fresh air to read a novel, particularly one that deals with incredibly sensitive topics, where romance doesn’t play the biggest role in these character’s lives. Trauma doesn’t disappear because you fall in love, but being loved and having a person to lean on, whether that’s through a romantic love or platonic love, makes it easier to learn to heal.
My one gripe with this novel, aside from Eleanor’s behaviour (although this can be be somewhat explained by the events that unfolded in her past that unravels the longer you read), is her infatuation with musician, Johnnie Lomond. It didn’t seem all that believable to me. Eleanor becomes almost obsessed, going so far as to find out where he lives and turn up at his apartment. Her infatuation doesn’t seem all that fitting, especially when you factor in her past and her behaviour around and towards other people. It felt, to me, that it was simply there to add as a subplot.
For a debut novel, Gail Honeyman did an incredible job bringing these characters to life. You get taken on a ride that fills you with a range of emotions, that leaves you craving more and feeling utterly disappointed when you reach the last page and realise that’s the end. It’s a very well written novel which makes it almost difficult to believe that this is Honeyman’s debut.