Eleanor is a woman who has elevated living alone to an art form. Her days follow the same pattern week in week out – a dull office job, the Telegraph cryptic crossword, the Archers, a regular chat with ‘Mummy’, no friends…and two bottles of Tesco vodka to get through the weekend. She is clearly not fine at all, and the novel is an investigation into why she is not fine, and what happens when she deals with her terrible past and finally allows herself to thaw.
This book seems to be everywhere this summer, so I picked it up expecting something special. The first half of the book builds very well, with the narrator’s deadpan tone masking the desperate loneliness of her life. Eleanor has a pedant’s fondness for classical allusions and words like ‘recondite’, ‘sartorial’ and ‘anathema’ (although surprisingly not such a stickler for grammar). She is old-fashioned to the point of caricature and therein lies a good deal of the humour of the book, but I felt her inability to apply mascara or order food in fast food restaurants or send a text did not ring entirely true for someone born in 1987, particularly one who (spoiler alert) had been in and out of care homes.
The answer to her social isolation, fairly predictably, is the kindness of others and interactions with normal, flawed-but-friendly human beings, and as her world becomes peopled so her life becomes bearable. She is a poignant and appealing Eleanor Rigby character, and this is an enjoyable feel-good book with a page-turning narrative and a good deal of heart, but sometimes it lays on the lessons with a trowel:
‘These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be affected. Or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.’
‘My life, I realized, had gone wrong. Very, very wrong. I wasn’t supposed to live like this. The problem was that I simply didn’t know how to make it right. Mummy’s way was wrong, I knew that. But no one had ever shown me the right way to live a life…I could not solve the puzzle of me.’
One of the ways she goes about putting it right is to go into therapy, and this is a device that allows the author to reveal the backstory while also demonstrating how the healing process works. I can’t help feeling there might have been a more subtle way of doing this and am reminded of the lonely and brilliantly grumpy protagonist in A Man Called Ove [snap judgment – read it!] – which deals with similar issues in a completely different way.
Eleanor comments at one point that it is difficult to know which books to purchase as the cover quotes (‘‘hilarious!’ ‘heart-warming!’’) are often misleading.
I know what she means.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is published by Harper Collins, 400 pages.