No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter. You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you? It’s true, though. 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.
Every day of every week, Eleanor Oliphant lives by the same schedule, eating the same foods, wearing the same clothes. She is, of course, completely fine with this until, one day, her uncomplicated, regimented life is disrupted by people she doesn’t seem to be able to shake. What the reader comes to quickly see, however, is that Eleanor’s regimented loneliness kept more than just other people at bay.
I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine thinking it was going to be a light-hearted story about a socially awkward woman, charmed and brought of out her shell. Like an Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, but with an even more awkward protagonist. The flap-copy did nothing to disabuse me of my belief—the only hint of there being something darker being the reference to her heart being “profoundly damaged.” But sure—flap-copy hyperbole and this is going to be a charming story to read after a few heavier novels.
Eleanor Oliphant was altogether not what I expected. While it was cheeky in the writing, there was ultimately very little light about it. The reader quickly discovers that Eleanor has survived a catastrophic event and most of her idiosyncrasies are a result of that event. As a result, this book was heavy in a way I did not expect. As such, I’ll admit that the shock of the book being unexpectedly dark colored my rating of it—even in hindsight I do not think the flap-copy summary does justice to the book and I can see other readers being similarly turned off after thinking they were getting a different bill of goods in this book.
Trying too hard
This might be one of the first times I’ve ever said this, but the writing in Eleanor Oliphant was SO cheeky, it felt like the author tipped too far to the extreme of quirk and was just trying too hard. I loved it at first—Eleanor’s inner monologue and tongue in cheek jabs made me hoot out loud until it quickly—like chapter two quickly—became too much. It felt like every interaction Eleanor had with anyone, either something she said or thought became an opportunity to show how other and smart she is, how proper and different. We get it. She’s weird. She abides by old social conventions and doesn’t understand new ones.
The best parts of Eleanor Oliphant are the characters themselves and the balance Honeyman strikes with the likeability of both Eleanor and Raymond, Eleanor’s coworker/new friend. Neither is particularly likeable on the whole, but she doesn’t push as hard on them as characters as she did with her writing so the balance here is better. Eleanor is not an entirely or, even mostly, sympathetic character for much of the book. Yes, she is at times unfairly disliked and made fun of by her coworkers (which, should never be ok) but you also very clearly see how she brings some of the disdain upon herself. There are social mores she doesn’t know to abide by, leading her to be the butt of awkward jokes but there are also some that she just doesn’t give a damn about. In other words, she was a real person. More flawed than most but not altogether either good or bad. There were times I initially questioned whether I really wanted to keep reading and it was only Eleanor herself (despite her overdone inner monologue) that made me keep going.
Similarly, Raymond is not the perfect novel leading man. He smokes, dresses somewhat slovenly, and is not in terribly good shape. Yet he’s undeniably loyal to Eleanor, for reasons I wasn’t entirely clear on—but you want this for her so you’re willing to go with it. Every so often it’s nice to have a romantic interest that isn’t dark and dashing but simply feels like someone you’d run into on the street. That’s Raymond.
It would have been easy to make Eleanor entirely unlikeable, a la Girl on the Train, or Raymond too likeable, yet Honeyman managed to avoid both of these pitfalls.
Resolution done well
The one other aspect of the book that I thought was particularly well-handled was Eleanor’s underlying trauma and how she reacts to it throughout the book. I am not going to give spoilers so there is not much more I can say; except that I thought the handling of it was well done and accurate as far as my experience and exposure to these sorts of things goes. I hate few things more than mental health poorly handled but felt Honeyman did an admirable job making Eleanor’s struggles believable.
Finally, Honeyman does have several paragraphs or small runs where I wanted to take note. There’s one particular section in chapter 8 where Eleanor muses on whether men feel the same pressure to look good than women do that made me want to cheer and read it twice. There’s also a section toward the end where the reader is invited into Eleanor’s musing on what it means to care for and love a pet that made my dog-collecting heart flutter. There were not as many of these as I found in something like Almost Sisters, where the point of the book seemed to be to make these kind of points, but they were refreshing to find in a general fiction book and brought the story and Eleanor a little more to life for me.
Ultimately, if I read this book under different circumstances, with different expectations, and without a looming library deadline, I probably would have liked this book more. Other readers may find the balance of cheek delicious instead of irritating. It ultimately wasn’t the right book at the right time for me, but I can still see myself recommending this to other readers, depending on their tastes and book needs at the time.
Published May 9, 2017 by Pamela Dorman Books (@pameladormanbooks) / Viking (@vikingbooks)
Author: Gail Honeyman
Date read: August 23, 2017
Rating: 3 ¼ stars