Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A popular book in 2017, it won the Costa Book Award and has gone on to become a bestseller and will become a film starring Reese Witherspoon (who acquired the film rights), an incredible success for the debut novel of Gail Honeyman. To be honest, it hadn’t been on my radar, however when a friend lent me her copy, insisting I read it and a rainy day beckoned, I turned the page…

The book begins with an interesting quote from Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City:

“…loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by getting out more, but only be developing intimate connections. This is far easier said than done, especially for people whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others.”

Eleanor Oliphant has been in the same office job in Glasgow, Scotland for almost eight years, she’s in her late twenties, intelligent, observant and diligent, she likes and needs routine and copes fine with her lack of social engagement, lack of friends, lack of family – with the exception of a weekly conversation with her mother on Wednesdays – and seems not to feel anything even when she overhears her colleagues speaking unkindly behind her back.

So used to her self imposed isolation and predictable life is she, that she seems shocked when a new employee Raymond from IT, whom she calls when her computer freezes one morning, initiates conversation with her outside the office, speaking to her as if she might be just like the others.

In this introduction to Eleanor, we aren’t sure of her, though her obvious intelligence and comfort in routine, he slight air of superiority despite the comments of her colleagues, suggest some kind of cognitive difference and her lack of a filter or self-censoring ability make her abject honesty a cause of surprise to some. Her habit of consuming vast amounts of vodka at home alone at the weekend, suggest something more dire lurks in her past.

Over the course of the novel, more of her early life is revealed and we learn that she has been through some kind of childhood trauma, which might explain some of her behaviours. This really sets up what for me was the main question, was this a case of nature, nurture (lack of) or trauma or a combination of them all. Honeyman leaves it to the reader to decide, but regardless of what influences made Eleanor the way she is, she is ripe for transformation. And she seems to have realised it herself, albeit, lead by a new obsession.

For, at the same time, and from the opening pages, she believes she may have met the perfect man, or is about to meet him, she obsesses about this man and builds him into her image of perfection, as had been defined by her absent mother, and prepares to improve herself physically in preparation of meeting him.

Meanwhile, through Raymond, her actual social connections begin to widen and they awaken something familiar in her, feelings that go with being invited to be part of a community, small acts of kindness, of inclusiveness, and Raymond helps her navigate these interactions, as might a friend.

It is a well written, engaging and thought provoking read, partly because of what is not known and slowly revealed, but the dialogue gives the story pace and there are plenty of new activities and social interactions Eleanor participates in, providing the space for her to grow and develop within.

“I wondered how it would feel to perform such simple deeds for other people. I couldn’t remember. I had done such things in the past, tried to be kind, tried to take care, I knew I had, but that was before. I tried, and I had failed, and all was lost to me afterwards. I had no one to blame but myself.”

I did find the character of Eleanor a little difficult to believe in, the long years of solitude followed by a relatively sudden transformation seem to occur too easily and quickly, however if I were to suspend judgement on the authenticity of the character and the speed of her life change, which wasn’t hard to do, then it becomes a kind of coming-of-age novel about a young woman overcoming a traumatic past and demonstrates (a little too conveniently) the healing that can come from genuine friendship and being part of a family and community and a functional workplace (if there is such a thing).

The introduction of a therapist also allows for the conversations that explore the difference between the fulfillment of physical needs and emotional needs, neatly tying things up and rounding off Eleanor’s late education and self development.

And while it’s not exactly a romance, there are elements of the ambiguity of her friendship with Raymond that certainly are likely to make this a popular film.

An entertaining, light read, that leaves you with more than a few questions.

Buy a copy of this book via Book Depository

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

  1. I have had my eye on this one for a while. Didn’t know that there is already talk about a film. The book does sound lovely and I am glad to hear that you enjoyed it. Definitely a title that I’d love to read. Great review!

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  2. I started out loving this book, then was turned off, but finished it because the writing is in many respects extraordinary and I wanted Eleanor’s outcome to be good. I had many issues that I just couldn’t swallow. Her mother was a monster, no nuance whatsoever, and I’m not fond of heavy handed, black and white portrayals of mental illness or personality pathology. Eleanor at times seemed to have Asperger’s, but I don’t think trauma would cause that – it was implied that it did – so I found that confusing. She seemed to know nothing about basic aspects of our culture, but she’d lived with foster families, not in a cave somewhere. In the beginning, her co-workers and others make fun of her and seemed cold and cruel; meeting Raymond transforms her universe and suddenly she meets a string of people who are extremely kind. I think for a first novel it’s quite good; on the other hand, I’m taken aback that there is such over-the-top acclaim for this book that I think has some simplistic and heavy handed characterizations. One book review YouTuber pointed out is was long listed for Man Booker, and she didn’t feel it belonged there.

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    • I don’t know if the author was trying to portray a particular disorder, because it seemed she suffered from one, which one would expect existed irrespective of any trauma, and isn’t something a little kindness could heal, but her character’s behaviours were certainly affected by the upbringing, and the mother’s abuse, I agree it was confusing and the author by deliberately removing Eleanor’s reactions to people’s comments about her (which she mentions in the interview) leaves the reader to judge.

      What I found less credible, was how such a significant turnaround could occur in such a short period of time, on account of one person.
      I think this is one of those books that’s an easy accessible read, and is intriguing to many and has elements of friendship/romance that will make it a light romcom, as evidenced by it being acquired by Reese Witherspoon.

      Bookerworthy? I think not, I checked, it wasn’t part of the Booker dozen longlist, however it won the Costa Book award, which isn’t quite as ‘literary’ it’s more of a popular reader’s prize, the coffeeshop book award.

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      • Claire, you’re right i was mistaken, it was long listed for the Women’s Prize for fiction. Below is the reviewer whose review I enjoyed – I don’t usually watch video reviewers, but she caught my eye. Thanks for discussing this book so well – you are amazing, i learn so much about important books to read from you. https://youtu.be/ik5PkXRvSsY

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      • Thanks Valorie, someone else who reviewed this title was asking about any other books that dealt with the subject of mental health and while I didn’t recommend any particularl title, I told them, I know exactly where to go to find them!

        Books Can Save A Life

        – if anyone wants to learn the value of reading and in particular related to issues of mental, you are without a doubt, the most reputable, interesting and compassionate source I know of. And because you only review those that really move you, your site is full of immensely readable books!

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  3. Thoughtful review, Claire! Many of the reviews I’ve read of this on Goodreads and on here have also mentioned that Eleanor’s transformation is a bit too convenient. It seems like the kind of story arc that would lend itself well to a popular film, and from what I’ve read I’d imagine the author likely wrote it with an adaptation in mind. It is intriguing, though, that the author leaves so much for readers to decide upon for themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that can be the mark of a debut, where a writer gets to experiment and play around with plot elements, introduce a twist, decide what to withhold from the reader. When there’s nothing to lose, no reputation to consider, there’s a freedom that allows a writer to do what they want, knowing it’s all a learning experience – until of course their debut becomes a bestseller and then gets analysed by everyone trying to figure out what was done and how.

      Ultimately, she has a naturally, engaging style and well placed dialogue that give it pace – and then we can debate all the rest as to its authenticity, but she seems to have hit on a formula people like, the safe, male friend, who is kind to his mother, helps a fellow citizen in need, and treats a vulnerable woman as a true friend.

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  4. Like you, I mostly enjoyed this overall, albeit with eyes in soft focus better to ignore the conveniences and illogicalities. I can see why it would be film-worthy, although ‘my’ Eleanor looks nothing like Reese Witherspoon!!

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  5. Great review Claire – we read it for our bookclub and it was generally liked by all. Reminded me a lot of a “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman which I also enjoyed. I did think the ending glossed over the reveal about her mother though which was a bit disappointing.

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    • I’m just hearing things about that ending and was asked what I thought yesterday, that someone on reaching that book had hurled it across the room! I had to admit, I wondered what I’d missed and I agree with those who say it was unnecessary, I think it kind of undermines the story, one twist too many, when it’s been written as a kind of coming-of-age, transformational story, to then turn on her own character like that at the end. You’re right though, either it should have been handled better or left out.
      I enjoyed Eleanor much more than Ove, what a cantankerous old protagonist he was, no, he annoyed me the whole way through reading, even when he improved, but they’re a similar kind of book, with the anti-social character that needs a bit of self improvement, aided by a good friend. Thanks for sharing Caroline, so lovely to hear your thoughts and what your bookclub is reading!

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  6. Like you, I discovered this book this year, long after it received all the initial attention. Fell in love with it and Eleanor! I can’t wait to see what Reese Witherspoon does with it (I love her too. :>) So great to see this book getting traction, slowly but surely.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You captured the essence of the book in this review. Not a perfect book but certainly captivating and the ambiguous relationship between Eleanor and Raymond was way more believable than a straight-up romance story. Kudos.

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