Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a real book. It’s a book-reader’s book. Immediately after reading it, I looked online to see if I could find any other books by Gail Honeyman and was sad to see there are not (yet!) any others. But she is a wonderful story in her own right – a great literary success with her first book at 40, which gives me hope as an author.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story, not surprisingly, of Eleanor Oliphant, a lonely, single woman who works in an office in England. The story is told from her point of view, and it is truly a window into another world. She has coping mechanisms, funny observations, rationales, and troubles. While you the reader are hearing from her perspective, you can imagine how she is seen from the outside. She is sophisticated in some ways, with elegant language and a detailed but dated code of politeness, but in other ways she is completely lacking in the basic skills needed to be “normal”. Her world is dictated by practicality in ways that leave others puzzled or even offended, and she obviously and simply doesn’t fit in. She knows it, as well.
What is most amazing about Eleanor Oliphant is the depth of the characters, including Eleanor herself. She is not a one-dimensional weirdo. She is bright, funny, and shockingly relatable. She is also sad, lost, and at times irritating. She is a person, and you feel that you know her very well, yet a large part of her remains a mystery.
Unlike so many “special” narrators – I’m looking at you, girl-in-the-bubble from Everything Everything and Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as just a few of many, many examples – Eleanor is not precious and perfect. What a relief. That is, I think, what makes her real.
The surprise of this book is that there is a bit of a mystery woven throughout – what made Eleanor this way? I think the revelations of Eleanor’s past are woven so well through the book that they don’t disrupt the flow of the story, until they do, sneaking up on you and creating a faint but creepy overtone to the book. It almost lets the reader experience what Eleanor might experience, going about her day and forgetting about troubles in the back of her mind until they pounce upon her without notice. It has the effect of helping you understand Eleanor and care about her, even as you realize you don’t know the whole story.
Don’t choose this book based on the plot – the plot is not the thing. It’s a book about emotions and rationalizations. A book about loneliness and humanity. The language is not simple and the jokes are not spelled out for you, which makes them all the more rewarding, The characters are regular people. As in the real world, this book does not have clear good guys and bad guys. This review is making it sound terribly boring, but it is the opposite. You will be enthralled, and you will root for Eleanor, and some of the scenes are truly heartbreaking. Nothing dramatic and cheesy happens, and yet it is somehow more dramatic than so many novels packed with momentous scenes.
I think above all these. it’s a book about perspective. Seeing the world from Eleanor’s perspective is eye-opening. It may even make you aware of some things that you yourself do or think and how they may be perceived by others. It should certainly make you pause a moment before thinking a cruel or rude thought about the weird kid, the loner… the person you usually ignore. Because once you get to know Eleanor as a person, with all her imperfections, you can’t get her out of your head.
If you love character-driven literary fiction, books from the perspective of a unique narrator, or suspense novels, I suggest you give Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine a try.