There seems to be a bit of a boomlet in books about people who, on the surface at least, seem to be at best misanthropic and at worst kind of nasty, who in the course of the book either are revealed as being better people than that first impression indicates, or who become better people over the course of the book. I get the appeal: doesn’t everybody love the moment in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is transformed into a loving, generous person? It’s more than that, of course: there’s a sneaky pleasure in watching Scrooge treat people abominably in the beginning of the story, maybe even a secret glee when he says the things that sometimes occur to us which we would never say ourselves (want proof of that? Consider that some of the most famous lines of the book are from Scrooge in the first part, not after his transformation), all redeemed by our knowledge that he, too, will reach a point where he would never say anything so heartless. We both like sharing the experience of being misanthropic and judging the person who acts on those feelings, and believing that even this person can be transformed into someone good and worthy.
It was with that kind of mentality that I started reading Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which is a book we’re reading for one of my book groups. The back cover description seemed to promise this kind of book: Eleanor, our protagonist, lives a very tightly ordered life, has standards of behavior which most people fail, and then comes into contact with two other people, an IT specialist at her place of work and an elderly man who gets into an accident in front of her, who help her see that there’s more to life than she’s let herself believe. With that description, and my experience of other books of this kind (Britt-Marie Was Here, for instance), I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the book would be like.
I was wrong.
Eleanor Oliphant is a more complex character than the stereotype, and there are hints of that from the very beginning of the book: her face is scarred (and, although she doesn’t describe the scars too dramatically, it becomes clear over the course of the book that these are serious, major scars that change her whole appearance), she gets periodic visits from social workers. She drinks straight vodka, and not just a little, either, every night, suggesting some major issues. There are hints, very subtle at first, that she’s had a traumatic past. And even the regular calls from her mother, who’s clearly a horrible person with a knack for skewering Eleanor where she’s most vulnerable, carry a hint of mystery. Eleanor doesn’t say where her mother is calling from, though she implies it’s an institution of some sort, possibly prison, possibly a mental hospital, and there’s never a question in Eleanor’s mind that her mother belongs there, whichever kind of institution it is.
Her relationship with Raymond, the IT person, isn’t the road to romance you might expect, partly because Eleanor, from the beginning of the book, has a deep and delusional crush on the lead singer of a band she’s seen live. While she doesn’t even allow herself to consider Raymond a romantic possibility at first (she’s merciless in her internal critiques of his appearance, his hygiene, etc.), she is crushed when she feels he might be getting romantically involved with someone else. His mother, an elderly lady living on her own, treats Eleanor as a friend, practically a member of the family, from the first time they meet. Sam, the elderly man she and Raymond rescue when they see him falling in public, immediately welcomes both Raymond and Eleanor into his family. Eleanor’s skittishness with people’s families also hints at a darker past, as does her longing to be part of a family.
The revelations about Eleanor’s past are heartbreaking, all the more so because they don’t come as a complete surprise. That is, I expected something awful, but the extent of it was worse than I suspected. And kudos to the author for still managing to surprise me with one aspect of Eleanor’s background (no spoilers here).
There is a happy ending of sorts; in that, at least, the book follows the pattern. But getting there is an unexpected journey, one well worth taking.
I can hardly wait to discuss this one with my Drum Hill Book Group.