Eleanor and Barbara – studies in loneliness

The world might be more connected than ever, but there’s still a lot of lonely people out there, and the effects of loneliness can be pretty devastating. Isolation makes people desperate and unhappy, and it can have very serious effects on physical health too. It’s one of those problems that’s incredibly difficult to solve, and being left alone with your tortured thoughts can be pretty brutal. It is, of course, possible to be lonely even when you’re surrounded by people, and that can make it even worse.

I’ve recently read two very good novels – Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and Notes on a Scandal – that both have lonely characters as their focus. They both turned out to be superb and thought-provoking reads.

I won’t do full reviews here, as I’ve already written those on my Goodreads – do follow me on there. 🙂 But I think they both deserve a bit of comment.

I spend quite a lot of time in bookshops, and Eleanor Oliphant is hard to avoid, as it’s clearly been hugely popular. It’s lumped in with a lot of chick lit and clearly marketed as such. I don’t have any problem with chick lit – I’m actually a huge fan of Bridget Jones – but I don’t go out of my way to read it, as I’m not part of that demographic. Eleanor Oliphant is also plugged using words like “warm”, “uplifting” and “quirky”, and again, that’s not usually my go-to reading material. However, I recently came across some reviews, which made me think that (a) it sounded very interesting, and (b) it’s not being marketed very well.

I soon found out it’s not a light and fluffy read at all. Written in the first person, it’s the story of a woman just turned thirty who lives in Glasgow but originally comes from London. Her life is one of dull routine – she’s had the same lowly office job for nine years. She wears the same clothes and eats the some food every day. She spends her evenings and weekends alone. She drinks a lot of vodka and has some pretty horrendous phone conversations with her Mummy (her term), once a week. As things go on, you get to realise that Eleanor is a profoundly damaged person, and that lies at the root of her isolation and inability to understand the world around her. She comes across as formal, rude, eccentric and really rather peculiar, and some would say she’s a bit unrealistic, but I found her to be an astonishingly credible character. Writing an unreliable narrator with few lovable qualities is very hard, and the author has done an amazing job here. The reason I wanted to read the book is that Eleanor sounded a lot like a relative of mine, who has had similar traumas in her life and adapted to them in a similar way – adopting a defensive attitude and attempting to ignore the pain and damage. It was enough to make me wonder if the author has actually met said relative, which given where they both live, is not entirely outwith the realms of possibility.

A string of events leads Eleanor to have to face her demons, and it’s a sensitive treatment of a damaged person on their way to recovery. It’s also a celebration of platonic friendship between men and women, and I heartily approve of this. Eleanor finally makes a friend in the form of Raymond, who comes across as a genuinely decent guy. Not once do they think about jumping into bed together, and they also don’t fall out before realising they were Meant To Be Together.

The only bits that jar a little are the attempts at humour that feel a bit out of step with the darker parts of the book, and are trying a little too hard to elicit a cheap laugh. Otherwise, it’s a thought-provoking look at what can happen when damaged people don’t get the help they need. The end is fairly open and feels quite hopeful. If it gets people thinking and talking about loneliness, depression and trauma, then that has to be good, and it’s refreshing to see someone write a young person affected by this. It seems loneliness is often regarded as an affliction of the old.

This is where Notes on a Scandal comes in. Zoë Heller’s novel was turned into a film in 2006, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett in the leading roles, and they were truly amazing. Backed up by a great supporting cast and some brilliant music, the film has been one of my favourites for a long time, and after seeing it again recently, it was time to read the book.

The plot of the film and book are very similar – very few major changes were made for the screenplay, just the usual compression and simplification here and there. Barbara Covett is a history teacher approaching retirement at a north London comprehensive school. The story is told in the form of a memoir, as she reflects on meeting Sheba Hart, a forty-two year old idealist entering the teaching profession for the first time. Sheba married young and spent years raising a son with Downs Syndrome, so it’s her first foray into the world of work for some time.

Barbara seeks to make friends with Sheba, but it soon becomes clear that her friendly interest is creepy, invasive, intense and manipulative. Barbara’s thoughts are laid bare on the page – after a lifetime of loneliness, she’s determined to win someone over to keep all to herself. When she finds out Sheba has been having an illicit affair with a boy at the school, Barbara goes in for the kill, estranging Sheba from her family and isolating her as chaos unfolds around her.

This book does not have a warm and fuzzy ending – it gets darker and darker, and ends with Sheba pathetically dependent on Barbara.

It’s a fascinating description of what desperation and loneliness can do, along with a massive dollop of self-loathing and repression. It seems pretty obvious that Barbara is a lesbian, but has never been able to accept this fact about herself, skirting around the subject in denial in all her writings. Her eagerness to find a soul mate has left a trail of destruction behind, as people recoil in horror, especially Jennifer Dodd, a former colleague who threatens her with a restraining order. Unfortunately, Sheba gets sucked in before she sees what’s happening.

Both book and film are superb, but the book goes into so much more detail. If you like a good psychological thriller with some unusual subject matter, it’s a must-see/read.

I have to admit that Notes on a Scandal makes me feel quite uncomfortable in some ways, as it’s made me realise that during a particularly difficult time a few years ago, I got things spectacularly wrong with one or two people and drove them away. I was too intense and too obsessive, partly out of loneliness, and partly out of stress and depression following a bereavement and more professional setbacks than you can shake a stick at. I was rather more damaged than I realised, and sadly that damage spilled over into the lives of others. It’s one of the big regrets of my life that I’m not able to fix that, but then forgiving myself has never been one of my strengths either.

Thankfully life is much better these days, and I think I understand myself and others enough to avoid making mistakes like that again.

It turns out that Reece Witherspoon has purchased the film rights for Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, evidently intending to star in the film herself. I’m not sure what to make of this, as I suspect it means the setting will cross the Atlantic. It’s a shame, because it’s a very Glaswegian book – the city, its people and its culture are a very important part of it. I also hope they don’t dumb it down too much, and that it doesn’t shy away from treating the serious subject matter with the respect it deserves. I especially hope they don’t turn it into a romcom. I suppose only time will tell.

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