3.5-4★ Poignant, yet funny, Eleanor Oliphant’s story will touch many readers. Raised in many foster homes, she remembers “at each new school, I’d tried so hard, but something about me just didn’t fit. There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into.”
A good student, she never saw the point of school sports days.
”How they loved to wear those badges on their blazers the next day! As if a silver in the egg-and-spoon race was some sort of compensation for not understanding how to use an apostrophe.”
She recalls “I never managed to find anyone who could fit the spaces that had been created inside me.”
We meet Eleanor at thirty, at work. She prides herself on having been taught excellent manners by Mummy and on doing her work perfectly. Manners, yes. Social skills – not so much. But she has a wry sense of humour about what she does.
“I’m a finance clerk. I could be issuing invoices for anything, really: armaments, Rohypnol, coconuts.”
She won’t talk about her past (Mummy), and she won’t talk about an abusive boyfriend she had for a couple of years. We understand she seems plain and has scars on one side of her face. She wishes to “. . . disappear into everywoman acceptability. I would not be stared at. The goal, ultimately, was successful camouflage as a human woman. . . . I aspire to average … I’ve been the focus of far too much attention in my time. Pass me over, move along please, nothing to see here.”
This was a girl probably not born with autism or Asperger’s or OCD but who had a Mummy who taught her to keep her mouth shut . . . or else.
“It’s quite frightening to think about the ideas that I may have absorbed from Mummy.”
So she shies away from revealing much, but she can’t help gushing to us about the lead singer of a local band on whom she’s developed an almighty schoolgirl crush, almost to the point of stalking. She can be quite poetic, when she wants to be.
“His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown.”
She’s been working in the same office for many years, has no friends and hates that she has to talk to Mummy every Wednesday (although she doesn’t know where Mummy is, and while we have our suspicions, we don’t really know either). Mummy's conversation continues to be critical and demanding--demanding that Eleanor learn to live with her shortcomings and lack worthlessness.
But Eleanor accidentally makes a friend, a nice guy and co-worker who urges her to help him rush to the aid of an old gent who’s collapsed in the street.
Much of this is a delightful story, albeit with dark undertones (wait till you hear Mummy). Her brave attempts to make herself an irresistible object of lust for her heartthrob singer are both funny (especially the waxing!) and earnest. She’s determined!
She self-medicates on weekends with Vodka, so she’s not all goodness and light, by any means. But Eleanor Oliphant is quite real, and while this isn’t an Ugly Duckling story, it is nice to watch her learn when to lower her standards and when to raise them.
I would have enjoyed this more Declan, the abusive boyfriend. We never really learn how he figured into her life or why, and I didn’t think the bit we did hear added much to the story. But I look forward to more from author Gail Honeyman.
Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins for the preview copy from which I’ve quote (so quotes may have changed).