The subject of loneliness- especially in the context of romance or life in general- is not one that publishers like their authors to dwell on, especially in America, the land that gave birth to the “Hollywood ending.” Perhaps that is why it took a Canadian, Douglas Coupland, to render the reality of being alone in its complex, sad and gritty detail- a task which he does brilliantly in what may possibly be the greatest novel of his career. The fact that the book is titled Eleanor Rigby is just cherry on the shake.
Originally published in 2004, the novel revolves around a clerk named- wait for it- Eleanor Rigby. Single, obese, and pushing 40, Eleanor is the quintessential example of what happens to women who don’t slim down, marry up and achieve the “good ending” that their parents- and society-tell them to do. On the outside, she is matter of fact about her drab existence in her sparse apartment in British Columbia. Her obsessive movie rentals and copious consumption of pop corn tell a different story. When a young man shows up at her door claiming to be her 21 year old son, the script changes entirely for her in ways she could never have anticipated.
While in less sure hands the novel would veer into harlequin romance territory after the first chapter even ended, throughout the 249 page novel Coupland manages to portray Rigby’s pathos without letting her become overly dramatic. Though the interaction between her and the aforementioned Jeremy is a little farfetched, it doesn’t veer into the realm of the unbelievable. The relationship between the two of them is one of the most trenchant aspects of the novel. The fact that he pulls it off without any of the characteristic witticisms and geek humor associated with his earlier works is a plus.
Though the ending is predictably rushed and bittersweet, the richness of the plot and characters more than makes up for it. We come to see Eleanor less as a strange girl who blossoms into an even more aloof woman, than a woman caught up in circumstances that aren’t entirely in her control. Typical Coupland fare, really. But it isn’t so much what he’s saying but how he’s saying it that makes the novel truly provocative–and perhaps, more relevant four years later than any of his previous books to date.
At $22.95, Eleanor Rigby is one of the more expensive books in the Coupland canon. But it is worth every penny.