[Eleanor Oliphant has gone to a department store to find something to wear]
‘I’m attending a concert at a fashionable venue, and I wondered if you might assist me with the selection of an appropriate ensemble?’
She looked me up and down. ‘Where is it that you are going?’
‘The Cuttings,’ I said proudly. She stuck out her bottom lip, nodded once, slowly.
It seemed that there were a variety of stores within the store, and she took me to the least prepossessing outlet. ‘OK, off the top of my head,’ she said, ‘these…’ a pair of ridiculously slender black denim trousers ‘…with this…’ a black top, similar to a T-shirt but in faux silk, with a keyhole of fabric missing from the back.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘I was thinking more along the lines of a nice dress, or a skirt and blouse.’
‘Trust me,’ she said.
[Eleanor tries them on] I looked exactly like everyone else. I supposed that was the point…
‘I’ll take them,’ I said.
‘D’you mind if I say something? … you need an ankle boot with skinny jeans.’
[Shoes sorted, the assistant sends Eleanor to make-up]
‘Go to Bobbi Brown, tell them Claire sent you.’
I asked to speak to Bobbi, and the woman at the make-up counter giggled.
‘We’ve got a right one here,’ she said, to no-one in particular… ‘We’ve only got ten minutes till the store closes,’ she said, 'so I’ll focus on camouflage and eyes. D’you like a smoky eye?’
‘I don’t like anything to do with smoking,’ I said, and, bizarrely, she laughed again. Strange woman…
[Ten minutes later…]
‘Well,’ she said, ‘what do you think?’
‘I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon,’ I said. ‘It’s charming.’
She laughed so much she had to cross her legs.
commentary: Charming is the word. The book is such an easy ready, it slips down like a delicious ice-cream, despite its sad and slightly bleak centre.
Eleanor Oliphant, who narrates the book, is self-evidently not fine. She has a job and a flat (in Glasgow, and how nice to read an urban book set outside London), but she really doesn’t understand how modern life works, and there is something very dark in her background. Many of the tropes are familiar - it is something like Graeme Simsion’s lovely Rosie books, with a touch of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident – though you wouldn’t necessarily conclude Eleanor is on the Asperger’s spectrum.
It is a very very funny book, which many of the laughs coming from Eleanor’s composed and certain approach to life, coupled with her complete lack of knowledge. She describes things like a Martian: her mug which we, but not she, can see is a Top Gear mug. And then she adds this:
I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka however.As she says later
Even alcoholics deserve help, I suppose, although they should get drunk at home, like I do, so that they don’t cause everyone else any trouble. But then, not everyone is as sensible and considerate as me.She has a job, but is not popular with her officemates: she knows that she seems odd to other people, but she has that certainty that it is they who are out of line, not her. At a manicure bar:
She and her companion were both staring, their expressions a combination of alarm and… well, alarm, mainly.Just as you would predict, and hope, the book is about her starting to change her life, via a first disastrous crush, and then a slowly blossoming friendship.
Of course she has to get some new clothes,above – this is a standard scene but none the less enjoyable for that. (There was a similar scene in Catriona McPherson's The Child Garden on the blog recently.) And I endlessly enjoyed the joke that Eleanor thinks Bobbi Brown is the department store employee doing her makeup.
She has plenty of great passing comments:
I’d recently finished reading a management tome which seemed to be aimed at psychopaths with no common sense (quite a dangerous combination).And
Was I alive? I hoped so, but only because if this was the location of the afterlife, I’d be lodging an appeal immediately.And
I stared at the floor, my mind racing. Did I… did I look like the kind of person who ought to be avoided in a game of bus seat selection? I could only conclude, in the face of the evidence, that I did. But why?Slowly, as her life takes a gentler turn, we learn though hints what it was in her childhood that left her so damaged, and it is not a happy read.
But still this is a mellow, optimistic book. Gail Honeyman has created a wonderful, wholly convincing, character, and the book is highly entertaining – and does a good job of reminding us all not to judge by appearances, and that a little generosity and kindness never goes amiss. I would strongly recommend it.