Eleanor Oliphant is a survivor with a secret past and her lonely life is difficult until an act of kindness changes everything. In her debut novel Gail Honeyman creates a thirty year old woman both pitied and ridiculed for her awkward social interactions as an adult.
Despite her attempts to fit in, she remains an outsider – that slightly odd person who rarely says a word, works all week, and sadly returns to a bare apartment after a hard day’s work at the office, spending her lonely weekends drinking vodka and eating pizza, speaking to noone until Monday morning. Her isolation has a reason but its effect has stolen her ability to understand what is appropriate behaviour in the world.
When she stops to help an older man who trips and drops his groceries, she meets Raymond, a fellow worker. The follow-up visits to the hospital begin a circle of friendship with the older man, his family, and especially Raymond, but Honeyman cleverly inserts an undercurrent of yearning for Eleanor – a plan to marry a rock star.
As Eleanor prepares to meet the pop musician, changing her hairstyle and her clothes, she is also inadvertently building a relationship with Raymond. Slowly, she ventures out to socialize in ways she has never dared before, and her life expands to new experiences. Behind all this strange reawakening, Eleanor’s past and her debilitating conversations with her mother, who calls her once a week, intrude on her present. Eventually, Eleanor has a nervous breakdown but with the support of her boss and Raymond, and a therapist, she manages to finally break away from the horrors of her past and live a full life.
Although Eleanor’s past is the secret finally revealed at the end of the story, her facial scars and her emotional fragility offer hints at the horrors she has faced as a child. Growing up in foster care after escaping a deathly fire, Eleanor has blocked all memory of her childhood. Carefully written to include compassion for Eleanor’s difficulty coping with adult life, the story is also full of humor as Eleanor tries to navigate the world of office politics and a possible love affair – her comments and observations on everyday minutia are hilarious.
Honeyman’s profile of a young woman who not only survives a horrible past but also manages to finally become her own person, is a treat to read. The book has been optioned for a movie. Read it or listen to it first and enjoy its charm.