Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter…It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.
At the office where Eleanor has worked in accounts for nine years, she’s an outsider and a bit of joke. People talk about how weird she is behind her back. It’s at a works do that she falls in love from afar with the singer of a band. She has to wait until Monday to find out more about him as she doesn’t have a computer at home. Her work computer crashes and this is how she meets Raymond Gibbons, a down to earth kind man who smells of cooking and cigarettes.
He loped off with a strange bouncy walk, springing too hard on the balls of his feet. A lot of unattractive men seem to walk in such a manner, I’ve noticed. I’m sure the training shoes don’t help.
Eleanor struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. She is a creature of habit wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day, buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend and is a bit of a loner.
I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I’ve always told myself, at any rate.
Closed off, alone, and unfamiliar with the world, the reader discovers Eleanor has spent time in care and has to endure visits from social workers who stare at her scars. Though she still speaks to the caustic-tongued “Mummy” who the reader suspects is incarcerated, every week on the same day at the same time.
Mummy always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She’s done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.
One simple act of kindness pierces the walls Eleanor has built around herself. And with the start of a friendship with Raymond, she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.
After they witness an old man who falls in the street, Raymond invites Eleanor to visit him in hospital. Whilst getting ready she ponders whether she could become a musician’s muse and this in turn leads her to reflect on her image both internal and external and we learn that Eleanor survived a fire and emerged like a ‘little phoenix’.
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.
Despite her routine, it’s the obsession with the imaginary love of her life, a singer, whom she hopes “Mummy” will approve of, that leads Eleanor to start to make changes to her appearance. She decides to make herself over from the outside and work her way in.
…that’s what often happens in nature, after all. The shedding of skin, rebirth. Animals, birds and insects can provide such useful insights. If I’m ever unsure as the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do? Or, ‘How would a salamander respond to this situation?’ Invariably, I find the right answer.
After a visit to a beauty parlour and much pain – something she tells us she is familiar with – she is horrified at the Hollywood bikini wax, this was not the answer she was looking for.
I had come here to start to become a normal woman, and instead she’d made me look like a child…I pulled my trousers on, consoled by the thought that the hair would surely grow back before our first intimate encounter. I didn’t tip Kayla on the way out.
Humour works to reduce the pathos and strangeness of a character who speaks with a comical and strange mix of archaic Victorian primness and precision. At work Eleanor resents having to contribute to leaving presents, baby gifts and special birthdays.
Whoever had chosen the engagement gift had selected wine glasses and a matching carafe. Such accoutrements are unnecessary when you drink vodka – I simply use my favourite mug…it has a photograph of a moon-face man on one side…Along the top, in strange yellow font, it say Top Gear. I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills.
Food is also an issue for Eleanor and she remembers being invited to a friend’s house where they had fish fingers and beans, which she had never seen before. And when asked by the family what she usually ate, recited a list of rather precocious list of cuisine.
Asparagus veloute with a poached duck egg and hazelnut oil. Bouillabasse and homemade rouille. Honey-glazed poussin with celeriac fondants. Fresh truffles when in season, shaved over cepts and buttered linguine…Of course after I was taken into care, I rapidly became acquainted with a new culinary family; Aunt Bessie, Captain Birdseye and Uncle Ben all featured regularly…It was one of the ways in which my old life and new life differed.
Hilarious and tragic. Eleanor’s past relationship with food highlights how mealtimes, food, or even just new living patterns can be torture for young people in care where everything feels strange and is so different from whatever they have been used to.
‘Being in care wasn’t always much fun. I mean, it was completely fine, I had everything I needed, but it wasn’t all picnics and pillowfights…They call young people in care “looked after”. But every child should be “looked after”…it really ought to be the default.’
The mystery of what really happened in Eleanor’s past is also a mystery to herself which keeps the reader interested in her future. As clues are dangled, events that took place begin to unfold.
This is not memoir or autobiography. It’s a fictionalised portrayal of the legacy of trauma, a writer who has done her research homework around the silence that accompanies this and the ultimate loneliness that difference and reclusiveness can create. Eleanor’s story is all too familiar to those who have experienced the ‘care’ system, arriving traumatised and often leaving even more broken. Told with warmth, humour, and a sad poignancy, weird, quirky, and eccentric, Ms Oliphant will have you laughing and crying simultaneously. Here is a character you will really care about.