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.

Mid-read Reviews: April 2020

One of my resolutions going into the New Year was to read a lot more which I think I am definitely doing; although I don’t have many books to show for it since I seem to, unfortunately, read at a snail’s pace. Of course, I try not to get bogged down in hitting arbitrary goals because that does tend to suck the fun out of leisurely activities like reading.

I thought I would talk a bit about the books I am reading and my thoughts on them – although they are yet to be completed (so no spoilers, please.)

So my current reads are:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Blurb: racial tensions rise in a small community when Atticus – the father of the To_Kill_a_Mockingbird.jpgprotagonist Scout- takes on a rape case, defending Tom Robinson – the black man falsely accused of the crime.

I started to read this a few years ago but never completed it because the copy wasn’t mine and I had to give it back. This read is, therefore, technically my chance at redemption. The part I am currently at is the trial; which I believe the whole book is technically meant to build up towards. It goes without saying that this book is considered a classic, although I am probably reading it more critically and with higher expectations because of that.

It’s hard not to view the protagonist Scout really fondly; I love her curiosity and brave spirit. She also seems to be amazingly intelligent for her age and in many scenes holds her own in conversations with her adult counterparts. Part of me does suspect this is due to the fact she is looking back on childhood events using language natural to her as an adult, as opposed to how she truly spoke as a child.

It would have been interesting to read this at a younger age and compare it to what I know now. Lots of people I speak to about the book mention fondly that they studied it at school; so it appears I must have attended schools that were statistical anomalies in that regard.

One profound part I recently read involves Scout’s friend Dill who runs out crying after witnessing how Tom is questioned on the stand. As Jean consoles him one of the adults observes them and says Dill shouldn’t worry – he may cry now but when he gets older he won’t get as emotional when he witnesses any racial injustice. That scene really does make you realise how desnsitised we easily become overtime to the struggles of others. Most of the time it’s a protection mechanism but it’s rather the fact it happens without us noticing which makes it more insidious.

My Dark Vanessa cover

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

Blurb: The book centres on Vanessa who at 15 years old was abused by her English teacher Jacob Strane. Vanessa, – adamant Jacob was her first love – now in her 30s struggles to come to term with past events in the light of the #Metoo movement.

This book is a recent release from HarperCollins but even before then, it has been making the rounds on social media; for some good reasons, and some less so. I was no doubt excited to delve in – the cover alone looks fantastic. From the blurb it goes without saying that this is not an easy or light read; it also does mean I have to take it small doses.

One thing it does make you realise is that victims of trauma come on a spectrum and the road to recognition and peace is not an easy one. Vanessa was ultimately deprived of normal teenage years – instead of giggling with friends at corner shops or gossiping about crushes – she was weighed down with the responsibility of keeping her ‘relationship’ with Jacob a secret. He’s honestly a despicable character; frequently using emotional blackmail to maintain the secrecy of the abuse. The book switches between past and present quite seamlessly; so we are able to witness how the abuse started and its present effects on Vanessa as an adult.

Vanessa as a protagonist isn’t the most likable of people but I don’t think that’s the important thing about this book.  As pointed out skillfully in this article; a lot of well known narratives on abuse revolve around the  perpetrator –  most notably, Lolita; which is referred to often in this novel. Narratives like these then are about women taking ownership of the narrative and finally having the space to share their story.

So there you go – a nice mix of modern and class I like to think.

If you’re looking for more detailed thoughts/ exploration of themes of My Dark Vanessa I would recommend this fantastic round table discussion on The Book Slut – a site I also write for.

Please do feel free to comment & share any thoughts you have about either book!