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.

The higher we climb, the harder we fall…

Trigger warning: I touch on the topics of mental illness, addiction and eating disorders in this piece.

Watching Demi Lovato’s docu-series on Youtube ‘Dancing with the Devil’, which chronicles their journey with addiction and their road to recovery, got me thinking this weekend about just how fragile we as humans are. We are flawed, often egotistical yet constantly learning as we navigate each stage of life. Why is it then that we love to put fellow humans on pedestals, elevating them to a standard even they themselves often feel they cannot reach?

This is one of the things Demi touches on during the documentary, as over the years they have become somewhat of a role model for many when it comes to mental health advocacy. However, what no-one knew was that they were battling with addiction on the side lines; making the public perception of them and what the real Demi was like as different as night and day.

I honestly could not imagine the amount of pressure such expectations can place on a person. You have 5,10,15-year-olds saying your art has changed their lives or got them through a hard time and that one day they want to be like you. It would be impossible to shrug that off without feeling some sort of burdensome weight of a duty to live up to this fantasy they have moulded of you.

Humans were not designed to be worshipped (for several obvious reasons.) A key one being we don’t have it all together, we don’t possess the perfection that is exclusively associated with God. Being idolised can definitely build ego but it can also create a quick path to inner destruction. Celebrity worship is often reductive – individuals are often being lauded all the time for a carefully crafted perception of themselves they and their teams have worked hard to portray. Or more simply, it could be because of looks alone or a talent like basketball or singing that makes people all googly eyed. Unfortunately, such talents are fleeting – they can take years to build and be gone in a matter of minutes.

So, in other words, we’re never really worshipping celebrities for who they are because we’ll never be privy to the real them, we’re in love with who we think they are. The unrealistic expectations of others become internalised which can then manifest themselves in toxic ways – for Demi, for example this was through disordered eating. This coupled with the toxic nature of cancel culture means there’s also a pressure to never step over the line. Making mistakes (whether publicly or not) is part of growing up but nowadays, one wrong step and your career is in jeopardy.

Demi isn’t the only one who has recently grappled with mental health in the public eye. Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the French Open after being forced by event organisers to since they wouldn’t allow her to pass on media interviews for the sake of her mental health. Jesy Nelson, former member of the British girl band Little Mix recently left the band, stating reasons related to the protection of mental health. Similarly, in the past many other celebrities have been open about their struggles with mental illness – Billie Eilish, Kanye West and even Mariah Carey, to name a few.

Of course, fame hasn’t been the direct cause of mental health struggles for many celebrities but it can certainly exacerbate them, especially if they previously existed before fame. For Naomi and Jesy it seemed as if they had reached the point where mental wellbeing and peace could not exist alongside the environment they were working in, so an ultimatum was reached. The fact many people, famous or not, have to choose between their work or mental wellbeing is very unfortunate. It shows – despite or the lovely ‘discussions’ we are having around mental health – we still have a long way to go in properly providing the related support people need for recovery, treatment or prevention.

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Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in reading more on celebrity culture I wrote about some thoughts after watching the Framing Britney Spears documentary which you can read here.

Behind #FreeBritney

I was watching the Framing Britney Spears documentary on a weekend two weeks ago and it got me thinking a lot, so I thought I would share some thoughts. In particular, it made me think of how sad a word we live in where people would start to capitalise of a person’s low points in life. For those unaware of the much talked about The New York Times documentary, its release comes at a time when the #FreeBritney movement is in full swing. Although I am aware of the rough purpose of the movement, I wanted to watch the documentary myself to learn about the wider context of how Britney Spears’ conservatorship came to be.

Conservatorships, from my understanding seem to be legally binding arrangements made when a person is deemed unfit to make decisions concerning their own welfare. The parties these arrangements concern are often mentally ill or elderly. Conservatorships cover different areas of a person’s wellbeing, in Britney’s case the documentary explains that her’s means she is no longer in control of her finances or medical care – theses are controlled by other people, which up until recently has mainly been her dad. This is where things get iffy and become quite speculative – we don’t completely know how Britney feels about the arrangement or what her dad’s intentions have been all of these years. However, the documentary does give some indication to these questions so it’s definitely worth a watch.

You want a piece of me?

People spent years taking photos of Britney Spears. But did they ever  actually look? | The Independent

“I’m Miss American Dream since I was seventeen
Don’t matter if I step on the scene
Or sneak away to the Philippines
They still gon’ put pictures of my derriere in the magazine”

– Piece of Me by Britney Spears (2007)

One magazine editor admitted that at the time of Britney’s well documented breakdown, paparazzi photos of her were going for $1 million apiece. Yes, you read that right. Can you imagine? Naturally, this has caused a frenzy over the years with blood thirsty paparazzi seeking to snap Britney in compromising positions. There were disheartening scenes of Britney’s breakdown being the question on a family game show – something I found highly shocking and distasteful.

It’s interesting that we seem to often detach the idea of personhood from celebrities which makes it easy to criticise and cuss them. They often feel so far removed from our lives that their feelings don’t seem to matter too much. We are living in a different time (supposedly) but I don’t think it would take much for this to occur again – another celebrity being hounded and pushed to breaking point by the media. We could shrug and argue that is the way the cookie crumbles but consumers are arguably the most important part of the media machine. Yes, tabloids create the horrendous content but we never fail to eat it up! They rely on us buying magazines and engaging with online content in order to create demand and make money. So, we may play a much larger part than we think in all of this…

Holding On to Hope

What does the future hold for Britney? Well, we don’t know. But I’ve been careful to not use the word ‘downfall’ since the connotations are of a point of no return. Yet, I feel that is far from where she is at the moment – she’s fighting her conservatorship and has a very loyal following behind her as she does. There’s been a recent victory in her legal battle as a professional co-conservator, Bessemer Trust has now been appointed by the courts, meaning Britney’s father, Jamie Spears, no longer has sole control over her estate. Not quite total freedom, but a small victory to celebrate in an on-going war.