“I was fine, perfectly fine on my own, but I needed to keep Mummy happy, keep her calm so she would leave me in peace. A boyfriend—a husband?—might just do the trick. It wasn’t that I needed anyone. I was, as I previously stated, perfectly fine.“
Eleanor Oliphant most certainly is not fine.
Unless, maybe, Honeyman has read Louise Penny’s brilliant mysteries, among them “Dead Cold” (also published as “A Fatal Grace”) and actually means FINE (she even uses this term in all-caps herself) which stands for “Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical”. That’s part of what Eleanor is.
I’ve read this book is about loneliness and, yes, it certainly is but it’s so much more – depression, childhood abuse and recovery.
Eleanor goes to work, trying to avoid any non-essential contact with her co-workers or, in fact, any human being for that matter. She relies completely on her routines (“I sat down and watched television alone, like I do Every. Single. Night.”) and abhors any deviations. Whenever she starts to actually experience feelings, she drowns them in Vodka. Suddenly and by pure chance, Raymond enters her life and Eleanor realises there should be more in life than routine.
This is not a romance, though. It’s not a “funny” book as such either – even though it has plenty of humour.
“After much reflection on the political and sociological aspects of the table, I have realized that I am completely uninterested in food. My preference is for fodder that is cheap, quick and simple to procure and prepare, whilst providing the requisite nutrients to enable a person to stay alive.”
The humour is always laced with Eleanor’s immense pain from which she is hiding; albeit not very successfully because you can’t “escape or undo” your past, nor can you just shed it:
“The past could neither be escaped nor undone. After all these weeks of delusion, I recognized, breathless, the pure, brutal truth of it. I felt despair and nausea mingled inside me, and then that familiar black, black mood came down fast.”
We are all defined by our past; what was done to us by our parents, by siblings, other relatives or other people we love(d). Since none of us are perfect, it follows that everyone will at least make mistakes. I made and still make mistakes raising my kids. I’m just trying to make my mistakes with as much love as possible.
Most of us can deal with what we experienced; some of us – yours truly included – just like Eleanor need help dealing with our past and we must learn to live with ourselves and our demons.
This “universal brokenness” is probably the reason this book is deservedly as popular as it is: We can relate to Eleanor because we at least recognise a few of her “eccentricities”. The consistent way she narrates her own story, her complete, disarming honesty even at the expense of her own dignity at times, makes her human.
The more Eleanor tells us about herself, the more she lets small remarks slip that are revealing with respect to her abusive “Mummy” and the one incident that forever changed her life. The further we get the bolder Eleanor becomes and she gets ready to face the truths she needs to confront to get better and once she has crossed the Rubicon, there’s no holding her back:
“I was ready. Bring out your dead.”
Until that point, though, it’s a struggle for Eleanor and it was sometimes a struggle for me because I so badly wanted her to get better and at one point, I realised I rooted so much for her I just had to have a happy ending or be crushed.
How can someone survive a mother like Eleanor’s? The conversations with her are written in a way that gave me the creeps; they start out relatively normal, harmless and even – in a few instances – positively…
“You wouldn’t understand, of course, but the bond between a mother and child, it’s . . . how best to describe it . . . unbreakable. The two of us are linked forever, you see—same blood in my veins that’s running through yours.”
… it already started sounding slightly weird here but it quickly escalates much further…
“You grew inside me, your teeth and your tongue and your cervix are all made from my cells, my genes. Who knows what little surprises I left growing inside there for you, which codes I set running? Breast cancer? Alzheimer’s? You’ll just have to wait and see. You were fermenting inside me for all those months, nice and cozy, Eleanor. However hard you try to walk away from that fact, you can’t, darling, you simply can’t. It isn’t possible to destroy a bond that strong.”
Eleanor “fermented” inside her mother – what a horrible thought! And, yes, even such a deprecating bond cannot completely be destroyed. We just have to learn to live with it.
That Eleanor is still a functioning – albeit damaged – human being after all that makes us admire her and her humanity. All the more so as we only learn the entire horrible truth bit by bit (“I was normal-sized and normal-faced (on one side, anyway).”): In her developing companionship with Raymond, Eleanor slowly realises there’s more to life and seeing how she works her way back into a more “normal” life is moving and enjoyable.
It’s never kitschy or soppy because her honesty (and often: bluntness) is very refreshing. Especially due to the fact that she knows full well that she’s not really fine:
“You’re a bit mental, aren’t you?” she said, not in the least aggressively, but slurring her words somewhat. It was hardly the first time I’d heard this. “Yes,” I said, “yes, I suppose I am.”
At other times I wanted to shout at her, e. g. when she decides a random good-looking guy will save her. By means of a partner, she intends to “reassemble”, to reinvent herself and make the “Eleanor pieces” fit – which can’t ever work that way.
You might not like Eleanor, maybe even loathe her for her constant denial, for her “weakness” or maybe you love her for her strength and her ultimate refusal to give up. Either way, you cannot be indifferent to her because she feels completely real. She could be your weird colleague, your rarely-seen neighbour.
All of this combined with Honeyman’s wonderful writing style, and the ending that is exactly as it should be, won this book a place among my favourites of all time.