If you haven’t read it and you are a reader you’ll most certainly have heard of it, it’s one of the big books at the moment, a Sunday Times bestseller and long listed for the Women’s Prize in Fiction. I touched on it in February but had to put it down as I couldn’t read it without crying, sobbing! This morning I picked it up again and battled on through to finish it as I felt I had to finish, so many people had urged me on with it telling me it was worth the pain.
So was it?
Eleanor Oliphant is a 30 year old woman. She lives alone in Glasgow and works in an office where she has worked for 9 years. She has weekly contact with her mother by telephone. Other than that she barely speaks to anyone and if she does she says the wrong thing. Eleanor is socially inept and awkward, comes across as rude and drinks a lot of vodka.
A couple of things happen. A chap called Raymond who works where she works starts talking to her and one day they see a man collapse in front of them in the street. Raymond stops to help and ensures that Eleanor does too. On top of this Eleanor finds a man that she feels would be perfect boyfriend, if not husband material, and commences a project to meet him.
As the book continues these threads develop and Eleanor meets more people, gets a bikini wax and drinks more vodka. But it’s not that flippant. It’s an important journey for Eleanor as she comes to realise what she has been blocking out from her childhood, reasons that explain why she is so socially inept.
I really don’t want to spoil it because whilst it is a pretty basic story and pretty obvious in the grand scheme of things the reasons are teased out and not unveiled until the very end. And book reading is a joy and a journey and I won’t take that away from you.
But I will discuss the themes of loneliness, of social ineptness, because these are the issues in the book that caused me to sob at many points. Not because of Eleanor though but because for me they triggered some very real memories. I used to go 48 hours at university without speaking to anyone when everyone went home for weekends. I didn’t drink through it though, I probably watched tv or read or listened to REM or Deacon Blue. I remember having to speak to the librarian one day and barely being able to get the words out. My social awkwardness only became genuinely obvious to me in the last few years when I was officially diagnosed with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Aspergers, as it used to be called. Over the years I have been told I am rude, difficult to be friends with, difficult to talk to, avoided. I have literally had a back turned on me more times than I can remember and been confused by it. Complaints have been made about me by work colleagues and I have been confused by them. Then I was told I had autism and everything, my whole life, just made sense. It made me so sad but it was also a relief. My brain is just wired differently so I struggle to understand the social stuff which for most humans is just natural, just known. I don’t understand shades of truth telling, it’s either the truth or a lie but it’s not meant with meanness, just honesty. I’ve been told categorically that someone appreciates my truth telling then been dropped like a rock when I have told the truth. It’s a confusing world out there for someone like me. And whilst there are a lot of us, more daily, we remain a minority.
So the reaction of people to Eleanor was something I was totally used to. Her work life, being talked and laughed about, I was totally used to. Being fairly oblivious to it, I am totally used to. And that made for hard reading because I’m in a year of realising that I’m different whereas before I didn’t.
Initially in the book I found Eleanor a really ugly character but she softened as she socialised and as the book continued and I grew to like her. Her honesty made me laugh because I understood it! I’d done it.
My husband asked me if I had liked the book when I finished it. I know that my head hurt from the crying and was numb from the memories. But I told him I didn’t know. I’ve been confused about the response of other readers to it and I find some of the responses fairly patronising. But I guess that some people will never ever ever understand what loneliness truly feels like and will never ever ever understand what being socially awkward feels like and will never ever ever understand what being different is like. And I wondered if maybe the good thing about this book is that it will inspire them to be like Raymond. To talk to the odd people and understand that the Eleanors of this world are good, caring, sweet people who don’t want to harm anyone and can’t help the odd, in fact they don’t think they are. Having to accept loneliness doesn’t mean you accept it, it doesn’t mean you want to be alone.
I wholeheartedly do not think that Eleanor is autistic, just to be clear. I just see lots of related issues.
Please don’t feel sorry for Eleanor, try to understand her, but if you can’t tell yourself that she’s different, not worse.
Happy reading guys x