Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.

31434883Oh my goodness, I loved this book. I had heard so much buzz about it that I didn’t know what to expect. When a book blows up like this one has it is sometimes a disappointment. Sometimes I avoid reading such a book in a perverse bit of book snobbery. If I had done so with Eleanor Oliphant, I would have missed out on one of my favorite books of the year so far, and it would have been a real shame.

This book is not what you think it is, even once you start digging into it. It starts off kind of quirky in tone, and you think maybe it’s lighter and fluffier than it turns out to be. It quickly becomes warm and wise, deeper and more life-affirming than I had anticipated. Eleanor is quite a character. She has constructed her life with precision to cut herself off from other humans as much as possible in today’s world and still hold a job. She holes up in her flat over the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks slowly to dull her pain until Monday morning when she gets up and goes to work again. She is desperately lonely, however, talking to her houseplant Polly (the only possession she had saved from her childhood.)

I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.

But Eleanor is not pathetic. She is smart with a cutting wit and is a character that I was instantly drawn to. She doesn’t bother with the little societal niceties that make an office or most social interactions run smoothly. She doesn’t see the point, frankly. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be on the autism spectrum or not, but in any case, she isn’t really like most people.

And we soon see why. Little hints here and there are dropped about her past. She’s has a trauma, social workers check in on her bi-annually, and she has weekly conversations with her “Mummy” which are truly awful. Mummy is horrible and cruel. Initially I wondered, why on earth does she even talk to her once a week? Well, we come to find out a lot about Mummy and Eleanor’s past. It’s horrific, and we can see why she so desperately wants to cut herself off from other human beings and numb her feelings with a slow drip of vodka.

But things change in Eleanor’s life – the new IT guy at work, Raymond, inserts himself into her life in an affable, friendly way, and when the two happen to witness an older man, Sammy, collapse in the middle of the street, they team up to help get him the medical attention he needs. She also develops a rather intense crush on a rock singer she sees when she wins an office raffle of tickets to a concert. She is convinced that she’s found the man for her. It’s the kind of crush I has when I was 12 or 13. As she starts stalking the singer in her free time, Raymond and Sammy slowly thaw Eleanor’s defenses and draw her into an actual life. But Eleanor’s past, the things she can’t or won’t deal with, won’t let her go towards happiness easily…

This novel ends on a hopeful note, and when I finished I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start again. I can definitely see myself reading this again in the future. It’s not exactly a “feel-good” read; it’s too sad and weighty to be considered that. But it is what I call a “life-affirming” read. This is a story of a woman who is not really living who slowly is pulled into something resembling a life, with genuine human connections and investment in herself. I really appreciated the way that Honeyman didn’t manipulate the reader. She lets the reader do the work of feeling things for herself instead of pulling the heart strings with maudlin sentimentality. And the fact that I never pitied Eleanor speaks volumes about the author’s affection for her character.

I highly recommend this novel, if this sounds at all like something you’d be interested in. Yes, everyone and her aunt’s book club is reading it, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company has optioned it, but there is much here to savor: a character you can truly root for and sharp commentary about the modern epidemic of loneliness.

 

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24 thoughts on “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

  1. This isn’t the kind of book I’m usually drawn to, but your review makes me want to read it. Wow. I also really liked your review of An American Marriage, which sounds right up my alley.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree. A lot of reviewers focus on the main character drinking, and I can’t stand perpetually drunken characters. Laila’s review focuses more on the interactions of the characters. I’m not saying that depressed or desperate or addicted people don’t drink. In a novel I’m currently reading, the character turns to whiskey to avoid her reality. However, the author does so in a way that doesn’t describe every chug, bottle, feeling about being drunk, nor does she romanticize it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And I would ass that Honeyman doesn’t romanticize Eleanor’s drinking either. It’s very matter of fact and we come to know that she does this in order to number herself from her past trauma. Plus, she drinks on the weekends, and is very functional during the week.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I get very tired of drunks in fiction – I find them as tedious on the page as in real life, on the whole. It takes a lot of skill to write about any kind of addiction without the book becoming too dreary…

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I read this book last year and I thought too it would be a light fluffy read. Eleanor was quite a surprise and I couldn’t believe how the author subtle shows us (and Eleanor) she’s not fine. I remember one part in the beginning when Eleanor talks about her tea stuff and making a proper cup of tea…she stole my heart at that moment and proceeded to tear it to pieces as the story unravels

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gosh everyone seems to love this book! I’m the opposite of you, I’m a real sucker when a book gets a ton of buzz and I’m always more likely to read it when it’s popular like this one πŸ™‚ Glad you liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

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