Eleanor Oliphant lives alone in her flat except for an impressive parrot plant named Polly. Eleanor has a steady job, two black skirts, five white blouses, and a pair of slacks for weekends. She wears sensible shoes, and she talks to her mummy every Wednesday evening for fifteen minutes.
Eleanor has an uncomfortable relationship with her co-workers, not least because she responds to their casual banter with deadpan, multi-syllabic pronouncements revealing her total incomprehension of pop culture. Vocabulary is her strong suit. She avoids social interaction until the day that she and Raymond, the IT guy, are both witnesses of an elderly gentleman’s collapse on the street. They stay with him until the ambulance arrives, and then begin a tentative friendship aided by the gentleman’s family, who insist that the two office workers saved their father’s life.
Raymond is ordinary in the way that Eleanor means to be, but misses. He wears frumpy clothes, smokes, and plays video games with his flatmates. He has a sweet mum who still lives in his childhood home and invites Eleanor to tea. Raymond does the washing up. He invites Eleanor to lunch at his favorite café in spite of her co-workers’ bullying, and Eleanor does her best to ignore the sound of his chewing. Her friendship with Raymond seems promising except for the fact that his mouth falls open every time he sees the old gentleman’s daughter, Laura, the spectacularly sexy hairdresser. No matter. Eleanor is currently pursuing a broodingly handsome local musician who is unaware of her existence.
Nothing is as simple as it seems, however. The reader has a growing awareness that Eleanor spends all of her energy plastering over the cracks in her façade. Every so often, a memory is triggered, and darkness creeps in through the white walls she has built all around her. Eleanor keeps to a rigid schedule that includes the daily crossword and three bottles of vodka every weekend. She never speaks to anyone outside of her workplace except for Mummy, and Eleanor’s mother is nothing like the sweet woman who raised Raymond. Oh, no. Mummy is vicious.
This engrossing novel presents as a contemporary slice-of-life story with perhaps a budding romance, but once the hints of darkness begin, the reader is eager to discover the next piece of the puzzle so that Eleanor’s life can be made whole. This stiff, standoffish woman is oddly endearing and vulnerable, and while we cheer on her efforts to find freedom, we are aware that the scar on her face is just a tiny reflection of the deep scars in her soul.
Set in Scotland, Gail Honeyman’s story places cozy teas, cats, and hearths disjointedly beside death metal, alcohol poisoning, and hatred. Her characters range from sweetly flawed to tragically damaged, and the reader grows to love them all. Honeyman exposes the dark secrets that are hidden every day in the most ordinary neighborhoods, as well as the inner cuts and wounds that everyone carefully bandages over, so that when we are asked, “How are you?” we can respond, “Fine. Completely fine.”
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.