Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant lives a strictly regimented and isolated life. During the week she works as an accounting clerk; on weekends, she drinks two bottles of vodka and speaks to no one. She has had the same job for nine years, since she graduated from university, and in the dozen years she has lived in her apartment, she has not had any real guests: “It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.” In fact, her only interaction outside of work is a weekly conversation with her mother: “When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes [to my plant], if only for proof of life.” Things change when she and Raymond, a new colleague, help an elderly man; slowly, she gets drawn into the wider world. As her external world opens up, so does her inner world; she slowly decides to confront the childhood trauma that left her emotionally and physically scarred.
Eleanor stands out as odd. She dresses unfashionably (“flat, black, comfortable [shoes] with the Velcro fastenings”) and speaks very formally, without colloquialisms. Her extensive vocabulary is impressive but her forthrightness can give offense. Though intelligent, she cannot read social cues. For example, she learns that she needs to bring a gift when invited to a party; not knowing what to give a man for his birthday, she gives him a half bottle of vodka and a packet of cheese slices since “All men like cheese.” When the man opens his present, “He looked at each item in turn with an expression that I found hard to read, but I quickly eliminated ‘boredom’ and ‘indifference.’ I felt happy; it was a nice feeling, giving someone a gift, the kind of unique, thoughtful present that he wouldn’t have received from anyone else.”
Eleanor tends to be very judgmental, not realizing that she has the very traits she criticizes in others. For instance, she “unraveled the string on my mittens from my sleeve” yet sneers at Raymond for wearing a duffle coat: “A duffle coat! Surely they were the preserve of children and small bears?” She bluntly tells a woman, “’You don’t look like a social worker’” but when the woman doesn’t know how to respond, Eleanor says, “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?” She spends twenty minutes explaining the benefits of a travel pass to Raymond but when he shows lack of interest, she concludes, “He is a spectacularly unsophisticated conversationalist.”
There is so much humour in Eleanor’s lack of knowledge about social conventions. I loved her reaction to singing and dancing to the Y.M.C.A. song: “Arms in the air, mimicking the letters – what a marvelous idea! Who knew that dancing could be so logical? During the next free-form jiggling section, I started to wonder why the band was singing about . . . a gender- and faith-based youth organization.”
But there is also truth to her observations. Once she starts taking pains with her appearance, she observes, “Being feminine apparently meant taking an eternity to do anything, and involved quite a bit of advanced planning. I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to hike to the source of the Nile, or to climb up a ladder to investigate a malfunction inside a particle accelerator, wearing kitten heels and ten denier tights.” She also wonders, “Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?”
There is also a great deal of sadness in the book. Eleanor was raised in foster care and describes her experience as fine: “’Being fostered was . . . fine. Being in residential care was . . . fine. No one abused me, I had food and drink, clean clothes and a roof over my head.’” When asked if her emotional needs had been met, Eleanor is “completely taken aback” and says, “’But I don’t have any emotional needs.’” Another time, she admits, “There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.” Having a mother who can only be described as abusive, Eleanor is astounded to hear a man say he hopes his children find happiness: “Was that what people wanted for their children, for them to be happy? It certainly sounded plausible.” Throughout, we are reminded that she is like the donated furniture in her apartment: “unloved, unwanted, irreparably damaged.”
The book emphasizes the human need for contact. When Eleanor makes a friend, “a genuine, caring friend,” she feels she has been saved. The importance of kindness is also stressed. When Eleanor does a kind deed, she is amazed: “I would never have suspected that small deeds could elicit such genuine, generous responses.” Her kindness to a stranger is in fact what begins her own transformation.
I understand why this book won the Costa Debut Novel Award. It will leave you cheering for Eleanor as she finds herself. At the beginning she has a “tiny voice” but she learns that her own voice “was actually quite sensible and rational” and decides, “I was getting to quite like my own voice, my own thoughts. I wanted more of them. They made me feel good, calm even. They made me feel like me.” The book will also leave you wanting a sequel.