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The opening of Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has a quote from Olivia Laing’s book Lonely City, which I have reviewed on my blog here. I had talked about loneliness before the global crisis we find ourselves in today, and it feels like there are new levels of loneliness, loss, and struggles that we are dealing with. It makes books like Honeyman’s just as relevant today as it was when it was published in 2018. There are talks of the book being made into a film, and it has been a best-seller with over 2.5 million copies sold world-wide.
I have a theory about feeling lonely. People can sense when other people are lonely and rather than reach out to them, we distance ourselves from that person. We tell ourselves: I have enough on my plate; this person is probably crazy if they have no friends; why should I care about this random person… When we see or sense loneliness we run for the hills. I don’t think we do this because we are inherently evil people – I think we do it because being lonely terrifies us and we don’t want to be reminded of what our lives could look like.
Loneliness is also a bit of a cultural taboo. As I said above, if you’re lonely, chances are people will think there is something wrong with you. If you’re the odd one out, that only works if you’re famous. This silence around loneliness is why I think Honeyman’s novel has been so powerful for so many people. No one wants to feel like the odd one out, so no one talks about their loneliness publicly.
The novel centres on the story of Eleanor Oliphant, an office worker with a rather uneventful life. She lives alone, doesn’t really socialise with anyone from work, and her only company is a houseplant. That is, until, a strange sequence of events opens up her world in ways that she never knew possible.
When Eleanor meets Raymond, who works in the IT department at her office, he is not put off by her ‘quirks’. Rather than running for the hills when he meets her, Raymond offers nonjudgmental help and support. Their friendship grows slowly, and turns into something rather beautiful. When they are out one day, Eleanor and Ray see a man has fallen over – Sammy Thom. They call an ambulance and Sammy goes to hospital. Raymond encourages Eleanor to visit Sammy, despite her being rather reluctant. From there, the three become an unlikely trio.
Eleanor has extremely rigid boundaries – the kind of boundaries that would scare off most people. This stems from a lot of her trauma, that you learn about as the narrative unfolds. These rigid boundaries often scare people off before they have a chance to connect with a person. It helps keep the lonely person safe, because they never let anyone in – bad or good.
And while we are on the topic of boundaries – we could all get better at having better boundaries. Although, there is a part of me that wonders, are we cutting people off too quickly? There is a fine line there – and I don’t know what the right answer is (I’m not a psychologist) but I believe that we could all get better at being kinder to ourselves and others through learning when our boundaries are helpful and when they hinder connections.
The novel shows all different kinds of loneliness, from Eleanor, to Ray’s mother, to Ray looking for love and feeling romantically lonely. It is a bittersweet reminder of what is truly important in this life – human connections.
If you are feeling lonely, I want you to know that I see you. Read Laing’s and Honeyman’s books and open up about your loneliness, even if it feels hard. As always, share the reading love.