Social Distance {Book Club}

Social Distance {Book Club}

A meme has been going around that says something about realizing your normal lifestyle qualifies as “social distancing.” Um…that would be me. Every few days, the government of Kenya adds new restrictions on interaction and movement. I haven’t had to make many changes to my routines in order to keep those restrictions. We homeschool, and my husband does the majority of our grocery shopping. I’ve had to make some adjustments, but they’ve been minor compared to most people.

What better companion for spending indeterminate weeks at home than Eleanor Oliphant? I didn’t know much about this book before we chose it. All I knew about her is that Eleanor avoids social interaction. And that Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine has been on everyone’s reading lists for the past couple of years.

Eleanor would do fine in a world with mandatory social distance.  With the exception of working in an office (though I imagine she wouldn’t object to a home office), she lives this way already. She is the only character in her story at first. Her mother takes up substantial space in her mind, yet only 15 minutes a week on the schedule, every Wednesday evening. If she lived through our current circumstances, she would spend her days adhering to the rules, not out of any kind of obligation to be a good citizen but simply because that is the way she already lives.

By the end of this section, Eleanor has started to unintentionally make some friends: Raymond and Sammy. I found myself wondering how they would cope with “social distancing,” “shelter in place,” or “self-quarantine” situations.

Sammy, headstrong old man that he is, I imagine would not care about the rules and would attempt to keep his life as normal as possible. He’s already lived through a lot, and don’t even think about trying to stop him from being self-sufficient! We haven’t met his family yet, but I see his children (who are all grown up) trying their hardest to make him see the sense in staying home.

Raymond seems like someone who would follow the rules. He would have a hard time with it because he is social. He has friends that he hangs out with. His mother hasn’t come into the story yet, except as a mention that he visits her on Sundays, but probably Raymond would be very busy taking care of his mother and trying to keep her safe.

We are gradually picking up clues about Eleanor, what happened to her, and what her mother did. Here are some clues and questions I jotted down:

  • Her mother is verbally abusive, though we know that she is incarcerated for something else, something violent. What?
  • Eleanor recognizes someone in the eyes of the man she dubs “husband material” (Johnnie Lomond). She refuses to think about who it could be. Later the new social worker mentions that Eleanor must “miss her.” She’s not referring to Eleanor’s mother. Who is it?
  • The social worker drops a piece of paper from Eleanor’s file, which Eleanor reads. It turns out to be a report from when she was in foster care. Eleanor’s response to it is, “Liars. Liars, liars, liars.” What happened while she was in foster care?
  • Eleanor refers to “the incident” in her own mind. It is presumably whatever her mother did to get locked up. The social worker has details about what happened, but Eleanor doesn’t want to know. Eventually, we find out that there was a fire, and it caused her scars. Did her mother set the fire?

At one point Eleanor asks herself, “If a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a potted plant, is she certifiable?” That line brings out all of my feelings about this book. At first, I laugh a little, but then I stop because it’s actually sad. Eleanor has made me laugh a few times, but also tugs my heartstrings. I hope for a better future for her.

Let’s talk in the comments. What are your thoughts about Eleanor? What clues or questions are you picking up?

Here’s the schedule for the rest of the book:

April 14 – Chapters 10-19

April 21 – Chapters 20-29

April 28 – Chapters 30-41

In May we will be reading For the Joy, which is a collection of stories about Aussie mums serving cross-culturally. Even if you aren’t a mom, this is a book for any woman and you will be encouraged by the stories in this book.

We are so excited to be partnering with William Carey Publishing for this book, and they are offering us a 50% off code for the e-book version of For the Joy! Click on the link HERE and use the code VABOOKCLUB50!

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash


  1. Bayta Schwarz April 7, 2020

    I have very much enjoyed getting to know Eleanor! In some ways, this book reminds me of the Fredrik Backman ones we’ve read. Mostly because it seems that in each chapter, another layer is peeled back, and you understand a little bit more. So much is still a mystery, though… And it seems like there is a pretty nasty story at the heart of it all so I’m a little apprehensive about that.
    I was very excited to find myself mentioned in the story: “like most sane people, I have no interest in physics”. Yup, I am one of those sane people! 😉
    Also, I love the parallels you drew with our current context! Here’s another one I noticed: when she visits Sammy at the hospital and the disinfectant hurts her hands, I could relate so well! I have super sensitive skin/a touch of eczema, so all this handwashing right now has been aggravating that.
    Can’t wait to read this next section and to see how the story unfolds!

    1. Sarah Hilkemann April 8, 2020

      Bayta, I thought Eleanor was similar to Britt-Marie, from our Fredrik Backman book last year! They both have their set routines and ways of doing things, and are happy to be on their own. 🙂

    2. Rachel Kahindi April 10, 2020

      I also saw similarities to Britt-Marie, especially in the way she responded to people in public, always misinterpreting their intentions, judging their manners.

  2. Sarah Hilkemann April 8, 2020

    I’m a little behind on this section but hopefully I’ll get caught up soon! 🙂 I’m listening to the audio version which is probably a little slower, but the accents are quite delightful.
    I want to be friends with Eleanor! She makes me smile, and I feel like she can be a bit snarky in some of her responses (covered with great politeness). But I agree, Rachel, she makes me sad too. The first time we meet her mother when they talk on the phone was terrible! How could someone’s own mother act and talk like that? I like that the author is unfolding Eleanor’s story for us, making her all the more endearing and intriguing.

    1. Rachel Kahindi April 10, 2020

      I like the way the story is unfolding, too, little by little.

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