When someone tells you she's fine, it's a good bet she isn't. When she tells you she's fine, as Eleanor Oliphant does, you can be sure. Eleanor is anything but fine, but she's only beginning to see that when we first meet her in this debut novel by Scottish writer Gail Honeyman.
Physically and psychically scarred by childhood abuse and a terrible fire so traumatic she can't bear to recall it, Eleanor lives alone. Thirty years old, she works in the accounting department of a design firm, where her oddball appearance and behavior keep her colleagues at arm's length. Weekends she blots out with vodka, and once a week she talks on the phone to her "Mummy," whose cruelty she has taken to heart and whose crime is revealed hint by hint.
Two chance encounters set the story in motion and tell us that Eleanor is ready for a change. The circumstances are not propitious.
A singer, Johnnie Lomond, walks onstage at a concert where she improbably finds herself, and, apparently because of the way he buttons his waistcoat, she knows he is "the love of my life." Much of the book is then devoted to her preparations for their inevitable romance, with the guidance of women's magazines. "The goal," she says, "was successful camouflage as a human woman."
Luckily, because of a problem with her computer, she also meets an inept, unkempt, faultlessly kind IT worker, Raymond, who becomes something of a bulwark against her starry-eyed delusions.
That Eleanor's social awkwardness is extreme, sometimes painfully and often comically so, is far more apparent to the reader than it is to Eleanor herself — and that we get this through Eleanor's own narration is a credit to the author's cleverness and craft. Literal, rational to a fault, unfiltered and far too forthright, Eleanor veers from self-aware to clueless to a perhaps unlikely degree.
Speculating about her prospective romance with Johnnie Lomond, she imagines him serenading her, "not on his guitar, that was too obvious. He'd surprise me by learning the … bassoon." And yet she says, "I've yet to find a genre of music I enjoy; it's basically audible physics, waves and energized particles, and like most sane people, I have no interest in physics."
If Eleanor finds her way to some semblance of normality, and to a reckoning with her awful past through therapy, that may be a bit more real than the earlier goofiness has led us to expect — but that doesn't make the goofiness any less delightful, or Gail Honeyman's reflections on loneliness any less poignant.
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Cornucopia, Wis.