Eleanor Oliphant has proved to be very popular with readers and apart from being shortlisted for several awards, and winning a few, it already has a film adaptation lined up – all pretty good for a debut novel.
The appeal of the book is that Eleanor is gradually unravelled to be a victim rather than a charmless, insecure and, psychologically, self harming young woman. At best, in the early chapters you are most inclined to feel sorry for her because of her rock bottom self-esteem but also slightly sorry for those who have to deal with her.
It is clear that her relationship with ‘Mummy’ is a problem but not exactly clear how. She is befriended by Raymond, a nerdy IT support person, who provides her with a friend and is the first step on her road to redemption. An obsession with an elderly and rather unpleasant failed pop star provides another learning experience as does becoming aware of Raymond’s family and experiencing a kind of normal humanity.
And that, without giving too much away, is the crux of Eleanor’s journey moving from a very dark place to realising the possibility of a human, social existence. Along the way, she resists the offers of help, inevitably takes the worst possible choices available and spends too long isolated, drunk and pill pushing. In some senses, this is a much rougher experience than the writer conveys but that might be quite clever because to Eleanor it is simply the way things are.
It isn’t giving too much away to say that, in the end, the mother problem is resolved and it looks as though the future for Eleanor, while not necessarily bright or perfect, is moving in the right direction.
The book works well for a number of reasons. It looks at the start as if it is another piece of ‘chicklit’ where an unattractive, unsuccessful, failing woman meets a man who turns her life around. Expect Hugh Grant to be round the next corner! The clever bit is that it confounds this. It doesn’t happen even though things get better but it draws you in to a more detailed and rounder characterisation. The relationship with the mother is interesting as well because it is a moot point whether she is really at the end of the phone or simply in Eleanor’s head and Raymond is also nicely drawn with his own inadequacies but good values underneath.
If you wanted to pick a hole in it all, the resolution is a little bit quick and contrived and a whole lot of hidden information suddenly turns up via Google and a friendly social worker. It brings up the sort of happy ending we are waiting for but, perhaps, in a not altogether convincing way. But that’s a small point and, otherwise, the book is an interesting and enjoyable read.