I’m on a quest to eliminate my BOTM backlist, and the first one on the agenda was my December selection, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It’s adult literary fiction, which was all I knew going in other than that Eleanor’s social skills are nonexistent at best, and abrasive at worst.
“Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?”
About the book: Eleanor has a crush. He’s a musician, and she’s seen him on stage once. They’ve never met. Nevertheless, she decides he’s absolutely the man of her dreams, he’ll fall madly in love with her when they meet, and he’s the key to turning her life around. And so she embarks on a self-remake journey and reconnaissance mission to learn about him before making her move. In the meantime, she’s thrust into a new social circle when she aids an elderly man who had a heart attack in the street; between her experiences with them and her weekly conversations with Mummy, she reveals a dark and tragic past that has made her adult life bleak and lonely. Her difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives has always made her seem so aloof and strange, but as the musician and the elderly man (along with a few other new acquaintances) begin to turn her life upside down, she learns that she’s not as remote and untouchable as she thought.
“Although it’s good to try new things and keep an open mind, it’s also extremely important to stay true to who you are. I read that in a magazine at the hairdressers.”
Eleanor’s dark past is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. The reader learns almost right away that there is more to Eleanor than meets the eye, and every subsequent clue is deeper and more curious. Her personality alone is enough to captivate the reader, but she also gives frequent hints about people in her past that turned bad (or were always bad without her quite understanding), the origin of her facial scars, and certain disastrous events which led to further hardships and her current life situation.
“Life is all about taking decisive action, darling. Whatever you want to do, do it– whatever you want to take, grab it. Whatever you want to bring to an end, END IT. And live with the consequences.”
I don’t know much about Asperger’s, but I’ve seen reviews claiming that Eleanor exhibits similar symptoms from the Autism spectrum. This is not a matter directly addressed in the novel, but from what little I do know, I do believe that this could be a contributing factor in Eleanor’s unusual personality. If this is indeed the case, I want to mention that the novel handles it pretty well. First, because it’s subtle. Eleanor has been mistreated, perhaps taken advantage of because a child with a neurological disorder can be particularly vulnerable, but the story is essentially about Eleanor, it’s not a moralizing reprimand to the masses about how to (and how not to) treat persons with Asperger’s; not that those books don’t have their place, but I find a subtle approach like this more endearing and effective. But most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant also offers readers examples of kind people who persist in helpful relationships with Eleanor not because of or despite any social difficulties she might display, but because she’s a person who needs friends like any other person needs friends. I know the world needs more diverse books– better representations of genders, races, disabilities– and this is the kind of novel I like to see fulfilling that demand: it’s informative but not preachy, enlightening but still fun. Eleanor is a fantastic character.
“Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”
Sadly, the present-day part of the plot is fairly transparent. It takes very little observation of Eleanor’s social encounters to figure out exactly how her plans with the musician are going to end up (though I was actually a bit disappointed with how internalized that final confrontation was, I was expecting more… confrontation), and almost as little time studying Raymond’s personality to know how things will end up with him. Even Eleanor’s secrets from the past are not entirely surprising when they’re finally revealed, due to the constant hints throughout the narrative that guide the reader to the truth. A little more subtlety with these techniques would’ve made this a definite 5-star read for me, but I think it’s a testament to how well-written the rest of the novel is that I couldn’t put the book down despite predicting where it was headed.
“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.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved Eleanor. She may be a bit unusual in her willingness to say out loud the first thought that pops into her head, but she has some darn good points to make in some cases, and even when I could see the mistakes in her assumptions, they never failed to amuse me. Eleanor Oliphant was Honeyman’s debut novel, and you can bet that I’ll be anxiously awaiting any new works she’ll have coming out in the future.
- Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a darker classic about a young woman who becomes dangerously depressed when she goes out to find her place in the world. Unlike Eleanor, who’s tragedy lies in her past and can be pushed behind her, Esther’s catastrophes take place during the time frame of the novel, which she struggles to turn back around.
- A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman is a lighter book with similar themes. Ove, an elderly Swede, has been grouchy and cantankerous (and downright unsocial) since the death of his wife– but when a new family moves in next door, he begins to see that he still has a few things worth living for. This book is as humorous as it is emotional, perfect for fans of Eleanor.
Have you read any books that surprised you lately?
The Literary Elephant