I just finished a book that made me feel...understood. This has been a good year for books that speak to me. I read Roxane Gay's Hunger and felt that I wasn't alone in my despair about my body. I loved Hunger. Still, it did not do for me what the novel I just finished did.
This morning, I sat in the parking lot at work for almost 15 minutes (don't worry - I was early) finishing my audio book. The novel was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It was a novel that spoke to me on a number of levels. First and foremost, though, Eleanor Oliphant...addresses loneliness in a very direct, honest way. The title character is a loner because of a series of circumstances outside her control. She does not have a support system of any kind for most of her life. Indeed, much of the novel concerns her learning how to navigate suddenly having a support system. It is moving and funny and beautiful. I know not everyone will feel the same way I felt about it. However, I think that what the novel says about loneliness is truer than almost anything I've read in a long time.
Contemplating how work keeps her sane, she says, "There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock. The threads tighten slightly from Monday to Friday.”
Realizing that the touch of a friend means much more than she ever realized, she says, "[p]eople sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they're dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole. when I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact -- I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn't hold me, touch me. I don't mean a lover...but simply as a human being. The scalp massage at the hairdressers, the flu jab I had last winter -- the only time I experience touch is from people whom I am paying, and they are almost always wearing disposable gloves at the time. I'm merely stating facts." That particular passage felt so true, so real, so right that I almost couldn't breathe for a minute.
What separates me from Eleanor, though, is that I do have a support system. I have friends (how ever far away) and family and a therapist. Eleanor struggles to let others in on her suffering. I relate to that. She says, "[p]eople don't like these facts, but I can't help it. If someone asks how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn't spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say." I do this, too. I feel this, too. And I need to be willing to let my support system work for me more often. It's there. I need to use it. I'm lucky to have it.
The final quote that made me feel so utterly understood, so utterly un-alone, speaks to the way we address loneliness today. "These days, loneliness is the new cancer -- a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don't want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they too might be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them."
I try to read a lot. All of the time. Lately, I'm usually reading a physical book while listening to a different one in the car. I haven't felt this way about a book for so long. Beyond her loneliness, Eleanor is very funny, keenly observant, and the way she evolves throughout the narrative is beautiful. If any of that sounds appealing, I'd really recommend this book. It has certainly meant quite a lot to me.