Coming of age stories are not unusual. Nor are novels about misfits. Yet despite its apparently commonplace premise, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine hit me like a sucker punch. Gail Honeyman’s novel is tackling that very twenty-first century malaise – the thing that nobody likes to talk about or even really acknowledge. Loneliness. It’s the one thing that nobody ever wants to admit to, that the nicely filtered photos on Instagram may not quite reflect our daily reality. How do you cry for help when your very problem is not being able to find the words?
Eleanor Oliphant leads a carefully timetabled life with nothing left to chance. She works through the week, never uses up her annual leave entitlement and every Friday buys herself the same pizza from Tesco along with two bottles of vodka so that she can spend the weekend neither drunk nor entirely sober, then returns to work on Monday without having spoken to another human being in between times. On Wednesdays, ‘Mummy’ calls and the less Eleanor thinks about her, the better. Approaching thirty, Eleanor has been in the same job for nearly ten years and speaks carefully and with precision, signing her emails ‘Miss Oliphant’ and interacting as little as possible with her colleagues. Of course, she’s fine and perfectly happy with her life – everything is fine.
Of course, there is rather a lot more going on. Half of Eleanor’s face is scarred from a fire in her childhood which she does not wish to recollect or discuss. Her formative years were spent in care and she still has to have welfare checks from a social worker, even though she explains to them that she is completely fine. Mummy seems to be calling from some sort of prison or psychiatric facility and the words that she says to her daughter are foul and leave Eleanor in tears. We sense her disconnect as she watches her colleagues laugh and joke, unable to understand their light-hearted lives, not even sure if she likes them but wishing despite herself to be included.
Honeyman captures the outsider perspective well here, no easy feat while operating within the first person. Eleanor overhears colleagues joking about her and often only partly understands. Winning concert tickets in a work competition, she first catches sight of ‘the musician’ and develops a crush, convincing herself that he is destined to be the love of her life. The snippets we get from this pathetic pop star via his Tweets – a rare foray outside the four walls of Eleanor’s consciousness – are part of the comedic twists which Honeyman sprinkles in, keeping the novel from becoming too dark in tone. Eleanor is determined to learn all about this man and to make herself over in order to win his heart.
I recognised how attached I had become to Eleanor when I realised how badly I did not wish to see her humiliated. I really did not want a novel where the unworldly heroine has to go through Bridget-Jones-esque prat-falls in order to find her One True Love. Thankfully, this is actually not that kind of novel. Honeyman is a far more humane writer and she treats Eleanor with far more kindness and a good deal more empathy. An internet issue leads Eleanor into contact with her colleague Raymond from IT, someone she at first dismisses as far too shabby and poorly-spoken. Later they have to come to the assistance of Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen in the street. Eleanor starts having to actually talk to real people and discovers that they are actually not so bad after all.
Reading this book before Austen in August, and finally reviewing it afterwards, I can see that Honeyman is harking back to Austen herself and indeed some direct allusions are made but it would be too big of a spoiler to go into here. Austen’s novels tended to focus on the moral education of her heroines and was particularly firm about the perils of self-deception. Elizabeth Bennet discovered that her own prejudice had led her to build her own interpretation of Mr Darcy’s character. Emma’s stories and conspiracies drew her into rudeness at the expense of poor Miss Bates. Catherine Moreland’s fantasies led her to utter humiliation. And Eleanor Oliphant hides her eyes from the past and it makes it impossible for her to move on. None of Austen’s heroines have seen the horrors that Eleanor has but she has to put aside her own conditioning, the barriers she has built to protect herself, the prejudices she learnt from her mother, it all has to come down if she is to truly see herself.
There are certain elements of the novel which did feel problematic – the idea that a good haircut is all a girl needs to feel better is an uncomfortable cliche which brings up images of the makeover scenes from Hollywood rom-coms whereby the ‘ugly’ girl (who was not ugly in the first place) is suddenly rendered sexually desirable. It was interesting though because I know that in years gone by, I found getting a haircut to be incredibly stressful since it required close physical proximity to people I did not know who then insisted on talking to me. It’s a big reason why in my teenage years I once went a whole year without cutting my hair. It was not a good look.
The only part of the novel which I really was not a fan of was the ‘twist’ towards the very end – that felt totally unnecessary and to be honest, I have mentally excised it from the plot as it threatened to undermine a book that I otherwise absolutely adored. I never survived a fire, I never had an abusive boyfriend, I have never spent whole weekends drunk on vodka and I have no facial scars, but at different points in my life I have had to overcome extreme loneliness. Honeyman captures the way in which one can get out of practice with navigating social situations. Through Eleanor, Honeyman draws a parallel to how people once used to avoid the word cancer, but now ‘loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way’. People can be very judgmental towards the lonely and even their nearest and dearest can be ready to show them contempt. In our social-media focused world, it is easy to believe that you are doing life wrong, not having enough fun, not having wild enough experiences. Reaching out can seem an admission of defeat. Not waving, but drowning.
I felt that Honeyman’s depiction of Eleanor’s search for help was well-portrayed, demonstrating though that sometimes third party assistance is required to get them there. The way in which it can be so difficult to throw aside a thought pattern which has been inflicted upon you was also so well put across, with Eleanor encountering kindness from people who her mother had taught her she should despise. This kind of mental and emotional abuse leaves deep scars because it leaves the sufferer struggling to find the tools to get help. Even as Eleanor is sitting down to speak to her counsellor, she is judging the woman’s earrings and thinking with disdain that this was a person who was trying to be ‘fun’. All too often the Eleanors of this world do not make it easy for themselves.
I am glad that I did not read this book a few years ago – I cried more than a little reading it this time, I do not know how I would have coped reading it then. I liked that Honeyman did not require Eleanor to finish the novel utterly reborn. She still spoke with precision, deciding against text speak and that ‘LOL could go and take a running jump’ and expressing disgust when Raymond spoke with his mouth full. I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to say that I found it more credible that she got a cat rather than a lover – never say never, but I did not think Miss Oliphant was quite ready for anyone else’s rubbish and I would recommend that she take some time for herself before she tried signing up for Tinder. I may not be a cat person myself but it was heart-warming to see Eleanor so happy taking care of her cat. I finished the book feeling inexplicably grateful to Honeyman for writing this and for making it clear that loneliness is not a personal failing. Life can and does get better – writing the review has made me teary again and although the book was not perfect in its execution, it has affected me more than anything else I have read this year and tapped into a sadly far too misunderstood human experience. Eleanor Oliphant is a novel which celebrates kindness both in its tone and in its subject matter – something about the importance of which we could all do with being reminded.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by HarperCollins on May 18th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Humorous, Black Humor, Coming of Age, Family Life, General
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