Although restrictions have eased a bit, I’m still under lockdown beneath the southern cross¹ (aka “lolling in the Antipodes”). Still doing needlework, still getting out for walks and short bicycle rides, still reading Little Dorrit (as dense as overdone grits so not as easily gobbled as Evelyn Waugh’s early prose; yet I persist).
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman, 2017, NYPL e-book)
Early in this novel, it becomes clear that 31-year-old Eleanor has a tragic past. She is a combination of misanthrope, language police, and brick wall, strongly seasoned with Asperger syndrome. In response to strangers phoning to sell her something, she whispers, “I know where you live” and then hangs up. Figurative language is not in her wheelhouse. (Someone asks her if she’s seeing anyone, and her response is “Yes”, meaning yes, she’s seeing the person she’s conversing with at that moment.) She sneers when she sees her colleagues’ over- and under-use of apostrophes, and she believes it’s weak people who fear solitude:
What they fail to understand is that there’s something very liberating about it; once you realize that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That’s the thing: it’s best just to take care of yourself.
This is a story of a damaged soul saved from itself². Eleanor begins the process after developing a crush on a local musician. She decides she needs to spruce up if she wants the musician to notice her, so she opts for a make-over that encompasses hair, clothing, and make-up.
Over time, the make-over expands to include mental as well as physical well-being, and I couldn’t help cheering for Eleanor as she learns more about how to be happy with herself and comfortable with other people. She starts to pull bricks from that wall I mentioned earlier. But there was a point where I noticed myself missing the old rough-edged, literal-minded Eleanor and hoping she could hold on to the part of her that doesn’t like the “gilded cage” of normalcy:
… like the chicken that had laid the eggs for my sandwich, I was more of a free-range creature.
At the end, when the full scale of Eleanor’s tragic past is revealed, I wasn’t surprised. Any careful reader should be able to guess her story. But there’s nothing wrong with an ending that fulfills expectations. Honeyman’s writing doesn’t falter, and there are scenes of pinpoint exactness: the “bronze” of autumn leaves piled along a sidewalk, the utter despair caused by disappointed hopes, the disquieting instants of self-understanding, the comforting scent of a friend, even if they smoke.
Strong writing, unforgettable characters, a satisfying ending — I can’t ask for more.
¹Every time I see the southern cross constellation, this tune from Richard Rogers’ Victory at Sea runs through my mind. My dad was a WWII naval veteran, and he loved this music.
²For similar redemption story, see Ricky Gervais’s After Life, available on Netflix.