Best for: Anyone looking for a meaningful read that, despite being nearly 400 pages, flies by.
In a nutshell: Eleanor Oliphant is nearly 30 and has lived her life alone since leaving foster care. But when she and her colleague witness a man take a bad fall on the street, she starts down a path towards confronting her loneliness and her past.
(Read the synopsis online, as I fear I’m not doing it justice.)
“Human mating rituals are unbelievable tedious to observe. At least in the animal kingdom you are occasionally treated to a flash of bright feathers or a display of spectacular violence.”
“All of the people in the room seemed to take so much for granted: that they would be invited to social events, that they would have friends and family to talk to, that they would fall in love, be loved in return, perhaps create a family of their own.”
“I could see no point in being anything other than truthful with the world. I had, literally, nothing left to lose. But, by careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often build on pretending just a little.”
Why I chose it:
This book is everywhere over here. By the fifth or sixth time I saw it on prominent display at a bookshop, I decided perhaps it was time to pick it up.
Is all fiction this good? I’ve read 16 books this year, and only two are fiction, and they’ve both been fantastic. I’m pretty sure I say this every time I read fiction — I’m just usually so taken with nonfiction that I don’t make time to read fiction, and that clearly isn’t great. There’s so much to think about with good fiction.
In this case, the main topics are loneliness, friendship, kindness, and how we learn how to navigate the world. As we start the book, Eleanor seems a bit like an odd duck. She has a very specific daily and weekly routine, she isn’t looked upon highly by colleagues (not for her work, but for her personality), and she doesn’t have any friends. She seems to view the weekend as just marking time until Monday rolls back around.
Early on, we learn that she has some sort of scar on her face, and that she spent her youth in care homes until she moved into her current flat in council housing right after graduating university. She has no friends, and her only family is her Mummy, who is away somewhere but calls every Wednesday. Mummy is extraordinarily cruel.
I think some of the brilliance of Eleanor is that the things she thinks and says are (for the most part) totally logical, but don’t actually apply to how we interact as people. She is flummoxed by the idea, for example, that someone would say a party starts at 7 PM but then find it to be rude if people actually showed up at 7 PM. I mean, she’s right. It’s weird. But we’ve all picked up on the social cues about things like attending parties, or interactions with people we’ve just met. She hasn’t.
This is the kind of book that I wish I’d read as part of a book club, because I want to talk about it with people, like right now.