Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine.
Mostly, anyway. Except when she’s offering comfort at the scene of an accident:
“Mr. Gibbons is calling an ambulance,” I said, “so don’t worry, you won’t be lying here in the middle of the street for long. There’s no need to be anxious; medical care is completely free of charge in this country, and the standard is generally considered to be among the best in the world.”
Or visiting people in the hospital:
“How long are you likely to be in here, Sammy?” I said. “I only ask because the chances of contracting a postoperative infection are significantly increased for longer-stay patients—gastroenteritis, Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium difficile–”
She has fascinating insights on conversation:
“I realized he wasn’t really talking to me; it was like in a play, when a character just talks out loud for no apparent reason. I knew the answer to his question, however.“
and social obligation:
“No thank you,” I said. “I don’t want to accept a drink from you, because then I would be obliged to purchase one for you in return, and I’m afraid I’m simply not interested in spending two drinks’ worth of time with you.”
Eleanor Oliphant was, without doubt, one of the more interesting characters I’ve spent time with this year, rivaling Stark from Only Forward for sheer interestingness in internal dialogue and funny observations. I normally avoid literary fiction, but the sheer buzz from my reading friends (4.45 rating among 56 people) had me curious. The curious juxtaposition of a dear leukemia patient and GR oncology-connected friend planning to read it gently shoved me into the book.
It’s quickly apparent Eleanor is emotional and socially challenged, most likely on the autistic spectrum, although only once does this come close to being stated. I found her articulate observations as she navigated her life utterly fascinating, particularly in those social grey areas that are so strange to outsiders. I felt a kind of kinship with her; as an extreme introvert, I have little tolerance for social niceties which results in me thinking my way through such interactions. I too have experienced the thought, “I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this. I certainly hadn’t asked” when I’m earnestly trying to mind my own business.
After Eleanor and fellow employee Raymond witness an accident and intervene, Raymond begins acting as a role model for social concern and personal compassion, albeit inadvertently. I most enjoyed this section as it felt rather organic; it was not a miraculous awakening but a gradual discovery of concern. At the same time, Eleanor develops her first crush, and like many people, it is directed at a completely unsuitable person. Between Raymond’s willingness to treat Eleanor as a ‘normal’ person while accepting her limitations, and Eleanor’s motivation from the crush, she finds herself attempting many new skills.
“I’d coped surprisingly well, I thought. I’d met new people, introduced myself to them, and we’d spent problem-free social time together.“
The reader, presumably more experienced in ways of the heart and the world, knows that Eleanor is headed for trouble when she interacts with people. When it comes, it is no surprise —stop reading here, people who don’t want general spoilers– nor is it a surprise that Raymond is instrumental in assisting her back into the world.
Here are my problems: after developing Eleanor quite thoroughly as a person who didn’t quite tap into empathy or emotion, Honeyman has her go through a rapid transformation into a ‘normal’ human range of emotional expression through a couple months of therapy and some memory retrieval. Honestly, I was disappointed in this authorial choice. It stopped feeling organic, and it stopped validating Eleanor’s experience of the world in her previous state, emphasizing a more ‘normal’ interaction as the goal. In the last quarter of the book, I found I missed the voice of the original Eleanor, and while I enjoyed that she was discovering a type of ‘happiness’ for her, I find it more problematic the more I consider.
The dramatic ‘twist’ at the end mentioned by so many readers didn’t bother me nearly as much as Eleanor’s quick transformation to an empathetic, touchy-feely person (touching the man in coffee shop, Bob, Raymond’s mom, the hairdresser on the street). I realize Eleanor felt more connected to people, which is presumably good and more fulfilling for her, but my reading of it felt like it was more of an emotionally satisfying journey for the reader, not Eleanor. Regarding the ‘twist,’ what I mostly felt was exasperation along the lines of, “what, really?” She’s autistic, depressed, alcoholic, suicidal and now schizophrenic? I haven’t fully parsed out my reaction here, partly because I’m venturing into diagnoses that I don’t know well, but it just seemed so… unlikely. Either an extreme combination of mental challenges or an authorial trick. It put her transformation into a very different light.
That said, it was a fabulous read. Easy to read, immersive, entertaining, with the benefit of raising some interesting questions about mental illness. There’s probably some sappy message in there about compassion and reaching out to others as well, but I must have missed it.
Hats off to Allie for her willingness to buddy read with me during the crazy holiday season.