It is easy to see why this book is so popular. When anyone says they are ‘completely fine’ we all know that they are trying to mislead us. Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine, and the reader knows this from the start. She will only get better, with blips on the way. This is an attractive feel-good story that appeals to the misfit in all of us. We want her to feel fine and we are happy to read about how she manages it.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is doing very well: Book Award overall winner 2018;Costa Book Awards Winner 2017; No 1 Sunday Times Bestseller; Women Prize for Fiction long list 2018.
The story of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Eleanor Oliphant is just 30, but socially inept. And her face is very scarred. She is a very unreliable narrator, for having told us about her boring job, lack of office or other friendships, a visit to the doctor to beg for more painkillers, and her routines that involve speaking to no one at the weekend and an unhealthy consumption of vodka, she presents herself to the reader in the first chapter in this way:
I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I have always told myself at any rate. But last night, I’d found the love of my life. (8)
As she tells her story it emerges that she had a most terrible childhood, her mother being a frighteningly wicked presence, and with a sister who died in terrible circumstances, probably at the hands of their mother. She has lived on her own in Glasgow since leaving care, and worked at the same office job since graduating with a Classics degree. She is a woman of routines, who keeps her distance from neighbours, colleagues and casual acquaintances. It emerges that Eleanor is not even her given name. The reader can see that this young woman has a terrible backstory. The question that hangs over the narrative is what caused Eleanor such pain that she has chosen to live in this way?
The story begins at the point at which Eleanor’s life starts to change. We feel for her excruciating loneliness, and all that she does not have in her life. A new computer geek comes to work at her office and fixes her computer. Raymond befriends her. She conceives a plan to fall in love with a singer, and is horrified when she sees how unrealistic it is. Gradually she begins to see how being kind to people and having them be kind to you alters how she feels about people, and she gradually changes herself to better fit in. There are set backs on this journey of this ugly duckling. The second question for the novel is, how will Eleanor Oliphant become completely fine?
Her outsider status allows her to notice the curious, the odd, and the illogical in the world around her. She is capable of some very funny observations and of some socially excruciating behaviours, and clothing.
One of the receptionists had hosted a party at her flat and invited all the women from work. It was a beautiful flat, a traditional tenement with stained glass and mahogany and elaborate cornices. The ‘party’ however, had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unedifying spectacle; seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators. (96)
In the end, after an unexpected plot twist, Eleanor Elephant is completely fine, and no longer needs to assert this. She has been helped by friends and by counselling, and has taken her own steps to emerge into the world. No longer lonely, we know that she will go on to find romance and deal with what’s left of her demons.
I have read that Gail Honeyman was inspired to write a novel about loneliness having read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: adventures in the art of being alone. Eleanor is a character that emerges from the isolation enforced by her childhood, a childhood in care, an abusive relationship, an unchallenging job and the geography of the city. We are reminded that small acts, open-heartedness and generosity together with a dose of initiative help people to live together.
It is a winning structure, to put all the bad things behind Eleanor, to watch her make mistakes and misunderstand, and then observe her acquire more poise and wisdom and escape.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, published by Harper Collins in 2017. 385pp
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