My new book club has a bit of a fascination with books that Reese Witherspoon likes. And that’s fine. Reese’s picks are usually quick and entertaining reads, and lead to interesting discussions that pair well with wine. Without Reese Witherspoon, I’m not sure I would have had Eleanor Oliphant on my radar — I know its been positively reviewed here many times, but something about it just didn’t call out to me. Until Reese announced it would be a movie, which inspired my book club…and here we are.
To be honest, I wasn’t 100% on board with this choice, until Eleanor (named after the elder Dashwood sister) talked about rereading one of her favorite books, Jane Eyre. One night, when she can’t sleep, Eleanor picks up her battered paperback and opens it at random, to when Janey first meets Rochester:
…startling his horse in the woods and causing him to fail. Pilot is there too, the handsome, soulful-eyed hound. If the book has one failing, it’s that there is insufficient mention of Pilot. You can’t have too much dog in a book.
And right there, I said, ok, I’m in.
Eleanor hasn’t had an easy life. Raised in foster care since the age of 10 — when something unspeakable happened, and she was taken from her “mummy,” Eleanor has led mostly a solitary existence. She lives alone, and other than her weekdays at work, rarely has any interaction with other people. And she sticks to a very strict routine: she talks to Mummy on Wednesdays, she goes to work, and then on the weekends — pizza from Tesco with a bottle of wine, and then two bottles of vodka.
Her colleagues think she’s a strange one — and indeed, she is a bit aloof. But she’s also extremely honest and truthful. Sort of like a female Larry David, but completely unaware of her social missteps.
One day, she has a bit of trouble with her PC at work and is annoyed to realize that she’s going to have to call IT in order to get it working again. The new IT guy, Raymond, shows up, fixes her computer, and annoys her with his sloppy mannerisms and the smell of cigarettes all around him. That night, Raymond walks out with her, and they witness an older man who collapses on the sidewalk near them. They rush to help him, and the three of them unwittingly find themselves tethered together forever.
Through Raymond and Sammy (the elderly man), Eleanor’s whole life changes. She is invited places. She meets people. She takes more responsibility at work. Little things to most people, but huge to Eleanor.
Meanwhile, Eleanor has unhealthily decided that she’s in love with a pop singer that she recently saw at a club, and starts to improve her appearance so that she might be ready for him when he decides to be with her.
Her new friendships, her potential romance with the singer, and her toxic relationship with Mummy all come to a head about two-thirds of the way through the book…and I’ll be honest, it was at this point that this book about what it means to be alone vs what it means to be lonely totally punched me in the gut and left me gasping for breath.
Its a lovely and often very funny story about friendship and family, but its also a tragic story about depression and suicide. I’m sure Reese will make a great movie out of this one. I hope they keep it based in Scotland…I’d hate to see the local charm removed so that it could be set in New York or Chicago.