Strikingly beautiful, young-looking for her age, and distinctly dressed, Eleanor is a force to be reckoned with. Seriously. For all her good looks and good clothes, Eleanor is just as conniving, clever, and jealous underneath her fashion sense. Much of the plot of the novel hinges around her concerns about who Nick will marry, her ways of intervening, and the resulting conflicts.
Singapore-born (this is significant to the prejudiced Singapore elite), Eleanor hails from the wealthy Sung family, though marrying Philip Young was a significant step up for her. We get the impression the rest of the Sungs may not be doing so well: "Whenever the phone rang this early in the morning, she knew it had to be one of her siblings in America […] probably her brother in Seattle, begging for another loan" (3.11.1). She and her sisters are also characterized as "so vain and materialistic" by her sister-in-law Victoria (3.8.20).
Our sense is that Eleanor was never truly accepted by Shang Su Yi as the right wife for Philip Young. First of all, it is rumored that Su Yi "very much wanted Jacqueline for Nick's father" (2.4.36). Additionally, Eleanor's own philosophy on love and marriage eschews love entirely and makes it all about timing: "indeed she had caught Philip Young at precisely the right moment" (1.7.5).
Throughout the novel, we see some ugly sides of Eleanor: pride, prejudice, and self-preservation. (Well, that last one's not so bad all the time. But the way she shows self-preservation isn't great, exactly.) Is Eleanor's indignation about Rachel because Rachel is not from Singapore? Is it because she is not of a dynastic stock like Amanda Ling? Or is it because everyone else knew about Rachel before she did? Let's explore.
Eleanor knows and values her place among the social elite in Singapore. Her friends "kowtow" to her because she had "trumped" them all "by becoming Mrs. Philip Young" (1.2.4). She pays an inordinate amount of attention to a hierarchy of status with her "social algorithm" that can identify who people are and all their family scandals within seconds (1.7.7).
With all that said, Eleanor takes great pains to make sure nothing sullies her family's name and status, like hiring private investigators, flying to Shenzhen to meet with random men who have information on Rachel, and enlisting other women to eliminate Rachel from Nick's life. We're left wondering: Is all of this in Nick's best interest or hers?
One of Eleanor's lesser qualities is her disdain for anyone who is not Singaporean. She's not unique in this trait, but is certainly rife with prejudice against a lot of people. We hear her exclaim the horrors of Nick bringing home an American woman, then potentially a Taiwanese woman, but, heaven save us, not a Mainland Chinese woman! Of particular note is an exchange between Eleanor and Philip:
Eleanor: Her family comes from some ulu ulu village in China that nobody has ever heard of. The investigator thinks that they were most likely working class. In other words, they are PEASANTS!
Philip: I think if you go back far enough, darling, all our families were peasants. And don't you know that in ancient China, the peasant class was actually revered? They were the backbone of the economy, and—
Eleanor: Stop talking nonsense, lah! (1.13.17-1.13-19)
Eleanor is mortified that Rachel might come from a working-class family, and shame on Philip for insinuating that she, too, might come from a line of peasants! How terrible!
Though she be beautiful and wealthy, Eleanor be jealous. She struggles to be among other beautiful women (she complains loudly about a trip with the gorgeous Jacqueline Ling and how awful it was to see men flinging themselves at her) to the point where her husband knows not to compliment Rachel's looks too much. She also has never been truly accepted by the Youngs, and it grinds her gears when she sees Rachel sporting a choker that once belonged to Su Yi, and when catty sister-in-law Victoria can only say nice things about Rachel (3.8.37).
But there's something else at play here with Eleanor. She mentions it once to Nick, and again to her friends, that she has sacrificed her whole life for her son. We think we need to scratch a bit more here:
While Nick scoffs at the idea that she has sacrificed anything for him ("I'm not sure what you mean, when you're sitting here at the chef's table of your twenty-million-dollar apartment" (3.11.57), we don't think Eleanor means she sacrificed material goods or a comfortable life.
What Eleanor sacrificed was the chance to be a mother. Once Nick cuts her and Su Yi out after they tried to stop him from marrying Rachel, she reveals the most honest bit of herself to her friends…while they shove ancient Chinese relics into their purses to save them from a lunatic Pentecostal minister. It's a funny scene.
In any case, she says she's spent her whole life trying to ensure that her son would inherit his grandmother's fortune. How? She stepped back and let Su Yi be close to him: "I know my mother-in-law never truly approved of me, so I […] moved out […] so there wouldn't be two competing Mrs. Youngs. I always let her come first in Nicky's life, and because of this he's been closer to her. But I accepted that" (3.19.27).
When we set aside all the garbage that Eleanor commits throughout the novel, this admission is pretty sad. She only has the one son, and she let his grandmother be the mother in his life. She essentially accepted that this family wouldn't ever accept her and removed herself so that her son wouldn't be "punished" (let's be clear…not receiving a family fortune is a strange way to define punishment, but in this world, it is).
Through this lens, Eleanor can be viewed a bit less maliciously. Now, wait, that's not to say that anything she did was nice, right, or justified. However, as a woman who gave up the opportunity to be close to her son so he could inherit his grandmother's fortune, she will do anything to make sure he marries someone his grandmother approves of.
Finally, we propose one final question to consider: is it possible Eleanor is trying to protect Rachel from the life she's been living? We'll let you decide.