It’s been a few days since I finished this book and I still haven’t stopped raving about it to my family, friends, and colleagues at work. Not for a while has a book moved me so much. Un-put-down-able (not a word, but accurate) and unforgettable. What a debut for Gail Honeyman!
Let’s begin with our introduction to Eleanor from the promotional content:
“Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live. Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.”
Eleanor is a marvellous and unorthodox heroine for the twenty-first century audience. Honeyman claimed in an interview that it was “fun to write someone who isn’t charming…not someone who people naturally warm to.” Yet, in my opinion, we do warm to her eventually – Honeyman writes from Eleanor’s perspective with such beautiful nuance that the character’s often prickly, quirky personality adds to her appeal. Eleanor is incredibly bright, hard working and efficient at her job. She is very opinionated with no filter or tolerance of social niceties – she will say exactly what she thinks to whomever she chooses.
Though this is the source of much of the narrative’s humour, it is also part of the sadness of Eleanor’s story. Eleanor is isolated and lonely – with no significant connection with anyone other than her mother, her ability to read social situations or participate in any form of natural conversation with people is virtually non-existent, serving only to increase her isolation. She is often the butt of other people’s jokes, the recipient of snide glances and comments.
Then one small, random act of kindness begins a chain of events that allows Eleanor the chance to live her life differently, to see herself in a new way. It sounds like a cliché but this novel is about a woman trying to find her voice, and a real place for herself in the world.
One aspect of the book which is so striking is how ordinary everything and everyone is. The characters aren’t written as ‘types’ – there are people like Eleanor and her colleagues in every workplace. Though there is a dramatic revelation towards the end, much of the narrative focuses on the commonplace aspects of life – Eleanor at home, Eleanor at work, Eleanor grocery shopping.
Loneliness, too, is a universal emotion. We have all felt isolated at some point in our lives, as though we don’t fit in. There’s always a struggle between wanting to change and being adamant that we shouldn’t have to change; knowing that we are completely fine as we are, but not being fine with the feeling of not belonging. That is a central theme in Honeyman’s novel, which makes it so real and recognisable – when that is combined with the uniqueness of Eleanor’s internal monologue, the emotional involvement in her story is ramped up. A small scene involving Eleanor getting her hair cut genuinely brought tears to my eyes – no more spoilers there.
I love the slow introduction of revelations that bring a fuller picture of Eleanor’s life. It’s great for drawing us in to the story, in a way mirroring Eleanor solving the hints and clues of her crossword puzzles. It allows us to empathise with her, but it’s also a demonstration of her personality. She’s an intensely private person, unwilling to divulge too much information about herself as a form of self protection. We discover that there are parts of her life that she has refused to acknowledge, even to herself, so it’s only fitting that the reader is very gradually given these small details through her internal monologue.
The pain and quiet sadness of loneliness, handled with such truthful sensitivity and interlaced with a warmth and humour, throughout this book means it will stay with me for a very long time. I recognised myself and people I know in so many moments of Eleanor’s story. I cried for her, laughed with her, and was overjoyed for her, sometimes within the space of a single sentence or paragraph. It’s a masterful accomplishment by Honeyman – no wonder it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Prize as a work-in-progress, and has been on the Sunday Times’ best-seller list for eight weeks.
Eleanor Oliphant is so much more than Completely Fine. She’s absolutely marvellous, and her story has been my favourite read of 2017.
If you haven’t had a chance to read this novel yet, I cannot recommend it enough.
If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!