So I’ve been watching this book with much jealousy and green-eyed monster type stuff, since we’re both repped by the same agency and this book has raced to the top of the charts, stayed there, won accolades, harvested the rave reviews. And so the worst part of me, the very worst, meanest meagrest part was like: yeah, I bet I’ll hate it. I bet I’ll read it and hate it and it’ll be like all the other pedestrian, humdrum, airport books and I’ll be vindicated because the truth is I am just WAY TOO COOL for this world and all that.
But then, somehow, I ended up suggesting that we read this next in my book group (this sounds nerdy but imagine a group of really good mates hanging out in Marbella port with beer and books). So then it was happening, I was reading it and – guess what – a little like the main character herself, I learnt a few things about myself, and about humans in general, along the way.
This main character is weird. She is socially inept, and awkward and lonely and nerdy and friendless. This is what we learn about her as we begin to follow her path. She spends entire weekends without speaking a word; she can’t remember the last time a human touched her without being paid for it (think hairdressers etc rather than prostitution). Details like this are what make this story begin to ring beyond its borders. Life is genuinely like that for some people – maybe more and more people as time goes on. And Eleanor’s loneliness is palpable, visceral, painful to read about.
But if all this sounds like a downer, you haven’t met Eleanor. She can perfectly encapsulate everything from the awkwardness of wedding dancing to the glorious absurdity of makeup counters to the vegetable smell of geraniums to the dehumanising/comforting sterility of the soft furnishings in a counsellor’s office. Through the microscopic lens of Eleanor’s sharp wit and observation everything is cast in an unflattering, unflinching light that makes you (or made me anyway) laugh out loud at the bang-on accuracy of her assessment.
Eleanor is wonderful. As too is her friend Raymond, presented to us repeatedly as a messy-eating, slobby, scruffy dork, yet metamorphosing miraculously in the course of the narrative in a way which… never mind, it’s all too much of a spoiler, and this is a story I would never want to spoil. Don’t even get me started on Glen the Cat, because, as far as I am aware, never NEVER has a cat been so skilfully drawn as a pivotal character in a book. Dog people beware – this take on cat behaviour and the particular laid-back, string-free brand of love offered by felines, may turn your head.
In short, I now realise I never fully understood my feelings about cats, or geraniums, or the Archers, until I read this book. Even with the omnipresent shades of intense darkness lapping at the corners of the pages, I still got into trouble with my husband for shaking the bed as I laughed out loud while reading into the wee small hours.
So when it comes to human nature, I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn. I started off this journey jealous of this book and this writer, and now I’m a fan. And being a fan feels good; being a fan feels way better than being a naysayer, or a green-eyed, envious wannabe. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, I return from my walk in Eleanor Oliphant’s sensible shoes changed, forever and for the better. And with a far more satisfying explanation as to why I don’t like geraniums.