Not great, just fine. Its strength is its protagonist, who I found just the right side of too contrived as a misfit, a figure of semi-comical pathos with a running undercurrent of desperation. That deeper, darker layer, however, for me was the novel’s weakness. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine purports to be a novel about loneliness: its blurb is from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and on the back is a review snippet calling it “an outstanding debut about loneliness.” But loneliness, it turns out, is a sideshow, or a side effect: it’s really a novel about trauma and recovery.
I’m not saying that a novel can’t be both of these things, but by the end of Eleanor Oliphant I was tired of the oh-so-gradual meting out of information about Eleanor’s tortured ( more or less literally) past and the carefully staged incremental movements towards her release from it. As a redemption narrative, the novel has its charming moments but is also relentlessly manipulative and, overall, predictable. And the thing is, I don’t think Eleanor needed all that background melodrama to be interesting, sad, and worth the effort. The novel reads like an Anne Tyler novel–it has many of Tyler’s characteristic themes and touches–but one written without Anne Tyler’s faith in the poignancy of the everyday, or her gift for emotional subtlety. I was engrossed in it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a slightly shoddy version of the better (different) book it could have been. Or maybe I just wanted to read a different book–Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, for instance.
That got me thinking, though: what are the really good novels about loneliness? Villette, of course! But what else? Scanning my index here, I’m reminded of Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights, and of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night which is about two people who take a quiet stand against loneliness. Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner both seem likely candidates but single or solitary is not necessarily the same as lonely. What comes to mind for you when you think of novels about loneliness?