Book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way, A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.” (p343)

Summary

This book follows 30-year-old Eleanor as she discovers the beauty of friendship and undergoes an internal transformation that gives her the strength to confront demons from her past. (I’ve probably made the book sound less interesting than it is but that’s because I’ve tried to keep my overview just provided spoiler-free.)

Gail Honeyman: 'I didn't want Eleanor Oliphant to be portrayed as a victim'  | Fiction | The Guardian
A version of the book art commonly seen on UK bookshelves. The book sold really well in the US & UK.

This book was published in 2017 and admittedly I’ve heard a lot of hype around this book, so it’s been on my radar for quite a while (I would say about 2-3 years). But like with many things that gain a lot of chatter, I didn’t want to feel pressured into reading it because everyone else was, so I made a mental note to read it when the time was right. Nevertheless, expectations were high and I was excited to get stuck in and figure out what on Earth this book was about. The title doesn’t give away much and neither does the blurb so it is one of those ‘you have to read it for yourself’ type books, if you want to really understand the themes, characters and general storyline of the book. Please be warned that this book deals with themes of suicide, depression and emotional abuse.

The main point of intrigue for readers of this novel will be the series of events behind much of Eleanor’s trauma, although hinted at early on in the book, the details are slowly revealed later on.

Style

The novel is narrated in first person (from Eleanor’s perspective) and is split into three parts; Good days, bad days and better days. I found the choice of first-person narrative to be very beneficial to me as the reader, since Eleanor seems to observe the world, as well as the situations and people she encounters, in a unique and profound way that would be lost in, say, third person, for example. In particular, I loved how it made me feel like I was in her therapy sessions with her, as she went week after week – each session giving her a life-changing revelation.

Thoughts

My impressions upon reading are that I can see why this book captured the imagination of many readers when it was first released. Eleanor is a very quirky, and ultimately a likable character.* She tends to be very savvy, intelligent and kind-hearted; even if not obvious to those she meets at first, those character traits always come through or stand out to them by the end. Her colleagues, for example, find her peculiar and so tend to keep interactions with her to a minimum. Although the peculiarity may be an understandable first impression, Eleanor, as you grow to learn the more you get to know her, is a classic case of why appearances (and first impressions) can be deceiving.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Book Review - Hasty Book List
Alternative book art

Perhaps due to an a typical childhood, Eleanor is usually not afraid to say things how it is which leads to many awkward (and yet hilarious) public encounters which definitely feel more unique to her as an individual. For example, there was an amusing scene in the later half of the book, where Eleanor is ordering coffee with a friend, and when asked what her name is so it can be placed on her drink, she kicks up a fight, ensuring she has the right to privacy. There are not many books I read that make me laugh or smile often and this one achieved this purpose so, props to Gail for that!

My only qualm (yes, there is one, unfortunately) is that it did feel like, when it comes to Eleanor as a character, she came across as quite caricature-like at times and almost unbelievable. I mean, what 29-30-year-old individual would struggle to order pizza in this day and age? A scene in a similar vein takes place where Eleanor buys a new laptop and seems to be really unfamiliar with how to set it up because she’s never owned one before. Another scene that felt slightly unrealistic in an age where tech permeates pretty much most areas of our lives.

However, I will say for every unrealistic trait Eleanor has, there is one that resonates strongly with readers. Whether it be; the loneliness, the frequent bafflement at human behaviour, the overwhelming desire for companionship & friends, the underlying grief, that niggling ‘what is the point of this?’ feeling of life, the depression. It’s all very real stuff, the ‘baggage’ many of us carry from day to day but don’t always see reflected in the characters we read about in books.

*It’s also suspected, but not confirmed that Eleanor is neurodivergent.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this novel is one about an individual’s journey of growth, self-acceptance and change. Although it may take a while to warm to Eleanor, Gail succeeds in creating a character who you can’t help but root for and empathise with. She’s brutally honest about her flaws and mental health issues, making her relatable, if not iconic, for many readers who have or are currently walking in Eleanor’s shoes.

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